Top 300 WWE Superstars of the WrestleMania Years
WrestleMania season is upon us! As we look ahead to the thirty-third iteration, I’d like to take this opportunity to look back at the history of WWE. Three years ago, I wrote a comprehensive ranking of all 287 WrestleMania matches that had occurred up to that point for Buzzfeed. For those who have asked, yes, I do plan to revisit that project someday with the addition of ‘Mania matches that have happened since, but for now, I’m tackling the wrestling business from a different angle.
The advent of WrestleMania roughly coincides with arguably the biggest tectonic shift in pro wrestling since the 1890s (when predetermined outcomes became the norm, so promoters could make more money via more compelling dramatic effect). WrestleMania was a culmination and a coronation for the reign of Vince McMahon who eschewed the territorial tradition of the business in favor of creating an all-encompassing, dominant brand across the US. That shift included, by degrees, dropping the pretense of pro wrestling as competitive sport, in favor of recognizing it as “athletic exhibition” and a mode of storytelling.
There’s no singular right way of ranking the practitioners of the wrestling art form. Some might focus on kayfabe — who won the most matches and titles, or who reigned the longest. Some pundits will champion “work rate” exclusively, i.e., a performer’s technical skill, psychology, and athleticism in the ring. Some will emphasize charisma, because the ability to “talk fans into the arena” is a time-honored focal point of many all-time greats’ toolkits. Attempts at looking at wrestlers more holistically often veer toward “drawing power,” in terms of a performers popularity, or, more precisely, how much money that performer generated via ticket sales, pay-per-view buys, television ratings, and merchandising.
In compiling this countdown, I decided there was no right answer for gauging greatness, and thus tried to take all of the aforementioned factors into consideration, with additional considerations like longevity and influence on the product of the day and the product to follow. With all of these considerations comes a generous dose of personal opinion: I can’t claim these rankings are definitive but they do represent what I believe.
For those who might question how valuable or prestigious the rankings could possibly be after the top fifty-to-a-hundred performers, I will have you know that I had over 150 performers considered who did not make the final cut. By my unscientific methods, I estimate that a total of somewhere between 600–700 performers were eligible based on the criteria to follow, though there is a precipitous drop off around the 350 mark, at which point the tasks becomes ranking jobbers or outlandish gimmicks that didn’t survive much past a month — not as much fun for me to work out, not as much fun for you to read.
I should note that some of the top honorable mentions included Rob Conway, Ezekiel Jackson, Maven, Virgil, Ronnie Garvin, Paul Roma, JTG, Headshrinker Samu, Kelly Kelly, Mr. Hughes, Skinner, Maria Kanellis, Snitsky, The Genius, Essa Rios, Kevin Thorne, Erick Rowan, and personal favorite Dan Spivey/Waylon Mercy.
A few more technical notes before we dive in.
· This countdown is WWF/WWE- (henceforth inclusively referred to as WWE) specific. I only considered wrestlers who performed in WWE, and only considered their work while they were in WWE. To rip off this Band-Aid early, guys like Ric Flair, Dusty Rhodes, and Ricky Steamboat are probably all-time top ten talents in the world of pro wrestling, but since I only considered WWE work, not work under the WCW or NWA banner, none of them crack the top twenty.
· This countdown only considered work from March 31, 1985 (the date of the first WrestleMania) onward. Similar to the point above, guys like Bruno Sammartino and Bob Backlund would probably be in the top ten of greatest WWE talents of all-time, but years considered are not in their favor because each of those men had most of his best years pre-1985. Thus, I couldn’t justify ranking either of them in the top fifty.
· I aimed to focus on full-time WWE talents — not celebrities who made one-off appearances, or talents who appeared for just a single match. I arbitrarily set the bar at a minimum of three WWE matches that were nationally televised or recorded for home video in order to qualify for this countdown.
· A final, most-technical-of-all-point (readers who identify as casual fans, feel free to skip over this bit of nuance): Programming like NXT and The Cruiserweight Classic airing on the WWE Network have muddied the waters on the previous point. I arbitrarily decided to only count wrestlers who had at least three televised matches or recorded matches on the main roster, and to only really count their main roster work. So, for example, at the time I’m writing Asuka has not had a match on the main roster and thus is ineligible for the countdown. I did, however, include Sasha Banks who has been on the main roster for a year and half, but did not include her NXT work in her standing. It’s an arbitrary choice, but some sort of call had to be made.
Without further ado, let’s dive into the countdown: The Top 300 WWE Superstars of the WrestleMania Years.
299 and 300. Pat Patterson and Gerald Brisco
Top kayfabe accomplishments: For the period of time in consideration, Brisco was a two-time Hardcore Champion, Patterson a one-time Hardcore Champion.
Best moment: It’s not for everyone, but I found The Stooges’ 1999 match with The Mean Street Posse particularly entertaining and satisfying as a viewer.
Rationale: While these men are both bona fide legends with clearly distinctive legacies over the course of their wrestling careers, for the purposes of a countdown focused on only the WrestleMania years, their body of work is reduced to the late-nineties period when they served as “The Stooges” — hapless henchmen for Vince McMahon who occasionally went against the grain and worked face.
The gimmick was silly but it’s a testament to two truly great wrestling minds that they worked the gimmick to not only terrific comedic effect, but within their physical limitations to still come across as worthy enough lower card wrestlers despite each being well over fifty years old at the time.
298. Orlando Jordan
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Jordan is a one-time United States Champion.
Best moment: Jordan defeated John Cena, via some shenanigans, to win the US title. It was a plot point in the build to Cena defeating JBL for his first world championship, and largely a vehicle to free up the US title because Cena wouldn’t have a use for it for the next decade. Just the same, Jordan’s the guy who got the rub with the biggest victory of his career.
Rationale: Some fans give JBL a hard time about how he only got his nine-month WWE Championship run because he was a loyal company man who was in position to the take the title when there weren’t any good alternatives. Heck, JBL himself has modestly conceded that he was in the right place at the right time to get that push. All that is probably overstating it for Bradshaw, but when it comes to Orlando Jordan as JBL’s Chief of Staff in the Cabinet stable, and thusly Jordan’s upper-mid-card-status and US title run, the criticism feels more on point. While Jordan wasn’t a bad wrestler, he rarely demonstrated any special talent to justify the high-profile position he occupied on SmackDown for the better part of the year, besides being a fresh-faced heel to plug in as JBL’s second in command. Accordingly, Jordan’s star faded quickly in the aftermath as he not only lost the title to Chris Benoit in under thirty seconds at SummerSlam 2005, but proceeded to slip out of title contention and to the doldrums of the card for the rest of his WWE tenure.
297. Nia Jax
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Jax enjoyed several months undefeated upon her main roster debut.
Best moment: In Sasha Banks’s sympathetic face promo after losing to Charlotte flair at Roadblock 2016, Jax annihilated her on Raw.
Rationale: While Nia Jax tends to get left out of the conversation of top female talents coming out of NXT, she’s played the monster heel serviceably since getting called up last summer. With wins over Sasha Banks and Bayley, she could readily fit into the Raw Women’s Championship picture whenever WWE decides to pull the trigger. Moreover, her in ring skills have shown progress since her NXT days, and one has to assume she’ll have an upward trajectory should we revisit this countdown in the years ahead.
296. Chuck Palumbo
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Palumbo is a three-time tag champ in WWE (including carrying the WCW tag titles into the InVasion angle).
Best moment: Palumbo participated in a commitment ceremony with tag team partner Billy Gunn which marked the climax of the team’s run as pseudo-gay heels before they revealed they were straight and turned face. While the moment itself was in poor taste and clearly a ratings grab, it was nonetheless as high profile as Palumbo ever got in his wrestling career.
Rationale: Palumbo’s WWE run was a bizarre one from a character perspective as he went from an athletic young powerhouse heel teamed with Sean O’Haire to representing The Alliance to half of a team with Billy Gunn that was rock solid in the ring, but which had its whole gimmick hinge on the question of whether the two were involved in a gay relationship with each other. From there, he hooked up with the Full Blooded Italians stable. After some time away from WWE, he returned as a biker.
The incoherence of Palumbo’s tells us two things. On one hand, he’s not someone WWE ever had a clear vision for or ever seemed like it intended to push to the top. Just the same, he is someone who had the talent and potential for the company to keep trying with him, putting in the effort to give him distinctive gimmicks, giving him moments to shine in the tag ranks and mid-card.
295. Vladimir Kozlov
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Kozlov is a one-time Tag Team Champion, who was briefly in the main event mix challenging Triple H for the WWE Championship.
Best moment: Kozlov turned on long-time ally William Regal to defend Santino Marella, in so doing, formally turning face and forming a tag team that, while silly, probably presented Kozlov at his most entertaining for his WWE run.
Rationale: Kozlov debuted on the main roster in a fairly traditional monster heel foreigner gimmick. The big guy was fine, but bland in the role, and wound up playing a placeholder role in the WWE Championship scene through the fall before the company got serious as it approached WrestleMania season. After that main event level start, he became an enforcer for William Regal, and ultimately a straight man face to play off of Santino Marella’s comedy act.
While Kozlov wasn’t a great wrestler, he also suffered from mercurial booking, treated like a big deal out of the gate, and seemingly punished for understandably not having been ready for that spot. He was serviceable in each role presented to him and, truth be told, probably would have been better served to have spent more time under the learning tree as Regal’s heater to ready him for a more prominent position in the long run.
294. George Steele
Top kayfabe accomplishments: For the period in consideration for this countdown, Steele had one Intercontinental Championship match at WrestleMania, and one other ‘Mania bout to follow.
Best moment: Steele held off Randy Savage from using a ring bell on Ricky Steamboat at WrestleMania 3, thus keeping the match on the up and up and paving the way for Steamboat’s big win in the outstanding bout.
Rationale: I really wanted to rank Steele higher, given his iconic status in the wrestling business, but the time period in consideration only gave him from 1985 to 1988 to make his case, and during that time Steele was a largely neutered face act, besides which his best years were long behind him physically. Nonetheless, the man’s charisma was still well intact and allowed him, smitten with Miss Elizabeth, to be fun long-term rival for Randy Savage, and lovable mid-card act.
293. The Warlord
Top kayfabe accomplishments: The Warlord got two WrestleMania matches, the latter in a one-on-one bout.
Best moment: Teaming with The Barbarian as The Powers of Pain, The Warlord pulled off the rare double turn with Demolition, turning heel during their Survivor Series match to emerge the sole surviving tag team from their supersized elimination tag match, and arguably emerging the most intriguing act coming out of the show for aligning themselves with Mr. Fuji.
Rationale: The Warlord had an awesome physique, but unfortunately that’s about the most you can say for the guy as a wrestler. While Demolition got some flack for being Road Warriors knock offs, The Powers of Pain were even more overtly so, and all the less charismatic or talented in the ring. While The Barbarian would go on to show some greater depth as a singles performer and in later tag runs, The Warlord’s limitations were only called into sharper relief as a singles guy. His full nelson finisher was reasonably over, but seemed established primarily just so Davey Boy Smith could break it and decisively win their strong man feud.
292. The Boogeyman
Top kayfabe accomplishments: The Boogeyman won a WrestleMania match and won programs over the likes of Booker T and JBL.
Best moment: The Boogeyman sent Sharmell retreating to the back and pinned Booker T for the win in their WrestleMania 22 handicap confrontation.
Rationale: The Boogeyman is one of those guys who poses a key quandary for this countdown: how to reconcile wins and losses with actual demonstrated ability as a wrestler. The Boogeyman was certainly a unique gimmick, played with great gusto and commitment to the bit. Moreover, the guy got wins over main event level talent. Just the same, The Boogeyman rarely sent over five minutes in the ring and never looked that polished, settling into the odd role of novelty act who enjoyed greater kayfabe success than the performer or the fans’ reaction seemed to justify.
291. Jerry Sags
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Sags was a one-time Tag Team Champion.
Best moment: Sags and partner Brian Knobbs defeated the Hart Foundation to win the tag titles at WrestleMania 7.
Rationale: The Nasty Boys have a dubious legacy as a stiff, charismatic tag team with a lousy look and questionable talent in the ring. The perfect tandem move to encapsulate their team identity — The Pit Stop in which one of the Boys rubbed an opponent’s face in the other’s nasty arm pit. For their limitations, the two were reasonably over, first, and more memorably as heels who unseated The Hart Foundation for the tag titles only to put over the newly arrived Legion of Doom for the straps. From there, they moved on to a face run, toning down and humorizing more of their nastiness.
Of the two, I’ve always felt Sags was a bit more generic in the Nasty Boys role — a nudge less memorable than his counterpart, so he finds himself just a few places lower on this list.
290. Adam Bomb
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Bomb was the last man eliminated from his team at Survivor Series 1993, and got a singles match at WrestleMania in 1994.
Best moment: Bomb returned to the WWF after six years away as Bryan Clark, half of Kronik, and promptly laid waste to The Undertaker in a surprise appearance.
Rationale: Bomb had a great look, power, and agility (for his size) but was never in the right place at the right time in the WWF, first a pun-based supervillain who demolished jobbers, but never made much headway against fellow mid-card talent, then as a WCW refugee basically brought in just to help put over The Brothers of Destruction during the Invasion angle. Nonetheless, he’s remembered for what might have been, as one of the first tall three hundred pounders the WWF tried to get over with a pump-handle slam finisher, and a memorable enough character for his day.
289. Brian Knobbs
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Knobbs was a one-time Tag Team Champion in the WWF.
Best moment: Knobbs and partner Jerry Sags defeated the Hart Foundation to win the tag titles at WrestleMania 7.
Rationale: I don’t have much to add about Knobbs beyond what I wrote regarding his long-time tag partner Sags. Of the two, I found Knobbs a bit better on the mic and a smidge better in the ring (supported by him being the one to get a meaningful singles run post-Nasty Boys (in WCW’s Hardcore division).
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Typhoon was a one-time Tag Team Champion in the WWF.
Best moment: Then known as Tugboat, the big man turned heel on The Bushwhackers on an episode of Superstars to join ranks with Earthquake and form The Natural Disasters.
Rationale: From a contemporary lens, Fred Ottman is best remembered for his stint as The Shockmaster in WCW — an embarrassing run that got off on the wrong foot (pun intended) when he crashed through a wall, tripped over a misplaced board, and promptly saw any mystique or awe around his gimmick evaporate as he not only looked clumsy, but had his identity accidentally revealed when his helmet fell off.
That brief spell in WCW is actually, sadly, emblematic of his WWF run, too. He debuted as Tugboat, a big man buddy for Hulk Hogan. He was originally slated to appear in The Hulkster’s corner when he faced off with Earthquake at SummerSlam 1990. When Earthquake took him out, and The Big Boss Man took Tugboat’s place, it was debatable whether that meant he was getting demoted from the top of the card in favor of a more proven face, or positioned to come back in a more prominent position, challenging either Earthquake for taking him out, or joining the long line of Hogan’s friends turned enemies.
All of that promise fizzled, too, as Tugboat returned and promptly turned heel, but wound up in the tag ranks and not meaningfully interacting with Hogan, after which he finished out his WWF tenure as a lower-mid-card face. Ultimately, Typhoon went down as a big man who looked like he might break out, but wound up relatively forgettable in the grand scheme of things.
287. Rich Swann
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Swann is a one-time Cruiserweight Champion.
Best moment: Swann pinned The Brian Kendrick to win the Cruiserweight Championship on the first episode of the WWE Network’s Cruiserweights-only show, 205 Live.
Rationale: Hopefully, we haven’t seen the best of Rich Swann yet. He’s still a rookie on the WWE landscape, but his flashy kicks and charisma helped him stand out from the crowd in the new Cruiserweight division and become just the third man to hold its championship in the current run. He’s fun to watch, though, in putting over Neville for the title, he also seemed to pass the torch as the division found firmer footing in a surer, more over champion.
286. Grandmaster Sexay
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Grandmaster Sexay was a one-time Tag Team Champion in the WWF.
Best moment: As half of Too Cool, he won the tag titles off of Edge and Christian on a 2000 episode of Raw.
Rationale: After some success in the light heavyweight division, built largely upon a running gag of Jerry Lawler playing favorites toward his real-life biological son, and other commentators alluding to the never-explicitly-mentioned relationship, Brian Christopher found more solid footing as Grandmaster Sexay, part of a sort of comedic, surprisingly fun and accomplished tag team with Scotty 2 Hotty, known as Too Cool. Clustered with Rikishi’s new dancing big man face character, the guys were popular and got over for absurd mannerisms like Grandmaster Sexay dawning aviation goggles before he leapt off the top rope.
285. Renee Dupree
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Dupree was a two-time tag team champion in WWE.
Best moment: Dupree became the youngest champion in WWE history, winning the World Tag Team Championship as part of La Resistance, over Rob Van Dam and Kane at the age of nineteen in 2004.
Rationale: Dupree goes down as one of those WWE Superstars with remarkable potential who actualized some of his promise as a tag wrestler and mid-carder, but never quite reached as high as WWE probably hoped for him to. As it stands, he was a good heel with a rock-solid look, decent charisma, and decent in-ring skills, particularly for his young age. In addition to his most memorable work with La Resistance, he formed a good team with Kenzo Suzuki, and did some good work in the mid-card, including a US title program opposite a young John Cena. Unfortunately, hernia issues ultimately put him on the shelf, killing what was left of his dwindling momentum, and ultimately sending him on his way out of WWE. He’d go on to modest success on the indies and in Japan.
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Fandango won a singles match at WrestleMania 29 over Chris Jericho.
Best moment: Though the phenomenon would carry on for weeks to follow, on Raw the night after WrestleMania 29, Fandango received a hero’s welcome from the live audience that couldn’t get enough of singing his theme song.
Rationale: After spending a woefully long time in WWE’s developmental system, Fandango got his big break when he debuted on the main roster with a dancer’s gimmick, promptly beat Chris Jericho at WrestleMania, and became an unlikely crowd favorite via his catchy theme song. Unfortunately, from there he settled back down into the lower card obscurity befitting the silly gimmick, and arguably not doing justice to the solid worker.
Fandango has at last found some direction in recent months, teaming with fellow long-time developmental talent stuck in a lower card heel role, Tyler Breeze. While the two have been firmly set up as guys who put over real title contenders, they nonetheless have an identity and the ability to put on very good matches together.
283. Kenny Dykstra
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Dykstra was a Tag Team Champion.
Best moment: Kenny and his Spirit Squad brethren teamed up to get the best of The Big Show and Kane, and pick up the tag titles on Raw.
Rationale: When Dykstra debuted as the front man of The Spirit Squad, the gimmick seemed to have some pretty severe limitations. Nonetheless, as Vince McMahon’s de facto henchmen, the unit got to feud with DX and get main event exposure. Via his promos and his pretty swank Alabama-Jam-esque finisher, he seemed like he’d be a break-through talent.
Unfortunately, when Dykstra got the chance to fly solo, free of the male cheerleader gimmick, he accomplished very little, rejected from Rated RKO membership to the point of comedy, and settling into a lower card tag team with John Morrison in which both men seemed woefully underutilized. There are a lot of rumors about him getting punished on account of feuding with John Cena backstage for real, purportedly over Mickie James. Regardless, his career stalled out in WWE, save for a short-term reappearance to back The Miz against Dolph Ziggler in 2016, in a callback to their Spirit Squad days.
282. Luna Vachon
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Vachon was a top contender to the Women’s Championship in two distinct eras — the mid-1990s opposite Alundra Blayze, and then in the early Attitude Era.
Best moment: Vachon debuted at WrestleMania 9 as a truly distinctive character, backing Shawn Michaels and brutally attacking Sensational Sherri at ringside.
Rationale: Shift the timing, and Vachon, as a skilled in-ring performer surely would have been Women’s Champion and had a catalog of good-to-great matches to pull from. Unfortunately, the feud designed to launch her character opposite Sensational Sherri failed when Vachon got injured at the wrong time and then Sherri left the company, and Vachon didn’t get as many opportunities as she probably should have against Alundra Blayze as she was already firmly situated as a manager. Vachon’s best work as an athlete probably came opposite Sable, when she carried the novice wrestler who was super over to the fans to a number of memorable outings.
For the limited number of in-ring appearances she had and limited cast she worked with, it’s hard to rank Vachon in a better spot, but on pure talent, she could quite arguably land higher.
281. Matt Striker
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Striker was a jack of all trades, reasonably successful as a lower-card wrestler, manager, commentator, and authority figure for the original NXT.
Best moment: After a three-year absence from the ring, Striker returned from a non-wrestling role to team with Titus O’Neil and defeat prospects Derrick Bateman and Darren Young on NXT (when it was a nationally televised show rather than the developmental brand).
Rationale: While Matt Striker was a little too small and a little too nerdy to ever quite get a fair shake in WWE, he did his darnedest with whatever part was given to him. First, he transitioned his real-life teaching career into a heel gimmick to work the lower card and achieve some success in WWE’s ECW. Then he became a throwback manager, mostly working with Big Daddy V, before his commentating career began.
In the end Striker’s size and wrestling style, and all the more so his verbosity make him a better fit for the indies, and he seems to have found a home as the play-by-play man for Lucha Underground. Just the same, he was a good, steady contributor to WWE for over eight years.
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Gangrel was a mid-card act who successfully furthered the careers of Edge and Christian and The Hardy Boyz as each team got pushed to the fore as part of his Brood.
Best moment: At WrestleMania 15, Gangrel descended from the rafters with Edge and Christian in order to hang The Big Boss Man from the roof of Hell in a Cell, after the latter had lost to The Undertaker.
Rationale: Gangrel was nothing if not unique — a potentially a cartoonish character who rose to prominence just as the WWF was shaking off the last remnants of its cartoonish atmosphere from the 1990s (though he also played a jobber briefly during that era). As it turned out, Gangrel was a lot more of a Lost Boys vampire than a campy Dracula knock off — cool, with a particularly mesmerizing entrance that saw the arena light go red for him to rise from the stage amidst a backdrop of flames before pulling a Triple H-like move, spitting blood from a goblet before he stepped in the ring.
While the character was more memorable than the wrestler, Gangrel was a decent hand in the ring, and a compelling enough presence. He’d never threaten to break through to the main event, but was nonetheless an entertaining enough diversion for fans.
279. Aja Kong
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Kong was a top contender for the Women’s Championship and went undefeated in her WWF tenure, including a big PPV win at Survivor Series.
Best moment: Kong eliminated four wrestlers, last pinning Alundra Blayze to dominate at Survivor Series 1995 and emerge the sole survivor from her team.
Rationale: Kong and her WWF legacy are the victims of poor timing. The mid-1990s WWF women’s wrestling scene was firmly built around Alundra Blayze, and just when Kong was set up as Blayze’s most imposing challenger to date, Blayze wound up parting ways with WWF en route to the infamous incident when she dropped the WWF Women’s Championship into a waste basket on WCW Monday Nitro.
In the absence of a heroine to crush/be overcome by, Kong quietly left the WWF before her monster push came to any kind of resolution, and thus remains more of a foot note than a legend in WWE lore.
278. Titus O’Neil
Top kayfabe accomplishments: O’Neil is a one-time Tag Team Champion.
Best moment: In early 2015, O’Neil made a sudden face turn to reunite with old tag partner Darren Young in battling The Ascension. The moment of getting back together is probably as over as O’Neil has ever been.
Rationale: Titus O’Neil has a good look, reasonable charisma, and from his PR work seems to be a genuinely good guy. The trouble is that for all of these fine qualities, over his four years on the main roster the guy just does not seem to be a good professional wrestler in the ring.
O’Neil has had some good moments of comedy like his arrogant entrance and near-immediate elimination from the 2015 Royal Rumble. Other than that, his best work has come partnered with Darren Young, as the guys look like they really are having a good time when they’ve teamed up as The Prime Time Players. Unfortunately, when the two have split up, they seem on a loop of feuding with one another, and neither’s proven he can carry the other to much of a match.
277. Alex Riley
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Riley’s top accomplishment revolve around The Miz — backing him all the way to the WrestleMania 27 main event, and then defeating his former mentor one-on-one that summer.
Best moment: Alex Riley pinned recent WWE Champion The Miz cleanly at the 2011 Capitol Punishment PPV.
Rationale: Alex Riley had a great look, and solid charisma and energy. He demonstrated potential in the ring, and when he was paired with, then against The Miz, all signs pointed that he might be a big deal in the long term.
Sadly, Riley became something of a cautionary tale. While the details are sketchy, the consensus seems to be that he ran afoul of John Cena backstage, and Cena then used his political clout to bury Riley — promptly relegating him to all but jobber status before being moved to the NXT commentary team.
Riley’s story seems to be one of untapped potential. It’s tough to say how far he might have gone were it not for his political issues. From a shoot perspective, he’s frozen in time as a prospect; from a kayfabe perspective he had a very, very uneven run as a mid-card talent.
276. Lance Cade
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Cade was a three-time World Tag Team Champion.
Best moment: Cade defeated former partner Trevor Murdoch decisively on Raw to win their short rivalry after splitting up.
Rationale: Of the famous products of Shawn Michaels’s short-lived wrestling school, Cade was the biggest and thus the most probable success, but the guy never quite found his way to glory. After bouncing between tag teams and lower card gimmicks, he found his most memorable success teaming with Trevor Murdoch — one of the most decorated tag teams amidst a relatively weak era for tag team wrestling in WWE.
Cade looked as though he was on the cusp of a big push, aligning himself with main eventer Chris Jericho, but just as he got going he was very suddenly fired. The details, to my knowledge, haven’t ever come out, but Jim Ross has alluded to Cade making a big mistake that seems to be at the root of the issue. Sadly, Cade never had a chance to make up for whatever that mistake may have been. He died of heart issues purportedly related to drug use less than two years later.
275. Brodus Clay
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Clay enjoyed an undefeated streak upon the launch of his Funkasaurus gimmick and backed Alberto Del Rio in challenging for the World Heavyweight Championship at WrestleMania 27.
Best moment: As WWE got fully behind the Funkasaurus gimmick, but didn’t yet have the guy established in a real program, Clay got a dance segment dedicated to himself and a cast of Mommas at WrestleMania 28.
Rationale: Brodus Clay is a pretty fascinating case in WWE history who, frankly, I still struggle to understand the career trajectory of. He debuted via the nationally televised NXT show as a monster heel, but, perhaps because of the stigma of being seen as a rookie, struggled to get the gimmick over on the main roster, relegated to playing Alberto Del Rio’s henchman. Nonetheless, the future looked bright for him as throwback, King Kong Bundy-style super heavyweight who might wrestle with an eye toward injuring his opponents.
Clay went off TV, though, and re-debuted as the dancing Funkasaurus. The repackaging may have been a consequence of its era, as it came in the thick of PG times, but nonetheless showed potential to be something like a modern day Rikishi. Unfortunately, after a strong push to start, Clay got jobbed out to The Big Show and was relegated to the lower card. A late heel turn held some promise, but he mostly jobbed in that role, too, winding up a big man with a lot of squandered potential.
274. Apollo Crews
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Crews has had several televised victories and appeared in one-on-one bouts on PPV.
Best moment: Crews won a non-title match over Intercontinental Champion The Miz at the 2016 Tribute to the Troops special.
Rationale: After a celebrated run in the indies and shining early on in NXT, Crews got vaulted to the WWE main roster shortly after WrestleMania 32. Unfortunately, it was quickly apparent WWE didn’t have any long term plans for him and he has since wandered, largely directionless, through the mid-card.
As a powerhouse and a riveting athlete, hopefully WWE won’t squander his potential, and it’s still too early to call what his destiny with the company will be. He’s a guy who would really benefit from some sustained storyline development though, or maybe a trip back to NXT to hone a proper gimmick to complement his physical gifts.
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Nunzio was a two-time Cruiserweight Champion.
Best moment: Nunzio both struck gold and found his footing as a character for the first-time in WWE when he collaborated with Vito to defeat Paul London for the Cruiserweight Championship.
Rationale: Nunzio was a rock solid in-ring performer and good character actor, playing up his Italian heritage as part of the Full Blooded Italians.. Unfortunately, he funneled into the WWF in 2002 when the roster was at its deepest and, as a smaller wrestler, had a hard time shoring up a meaningful spot on the roster. He ultimately put together reasonable runs in the Cruiserweight and tag ranks before settling into a role putting over younger talents. Interestingly, he made a brief return to WWE down the road, not as a wrestler, but as a fill-in referee when weather prevented enough refs from getting to the New York area. He hung around in the role for a few months before quietly departing again.
272. Stephanie McMahon
Top kayfabe accomplishments: McMahon was a Women’s Champion.
Best moment: McMahon pulled off the victory over Brie Bella in a high profile SummerSlam match that marked the former’s return to the ring after over a decade without a match.
Rationale: Stephanie McMahon was difficult to rank in this context. On one hand, as a character, she’s been a steady top-tier presence who offers much of the same charisma and presence as her father — not to mention her dad’s willingness to embarrass herself for the entertainment of the crowd. Just the same, the main body of her work as an in-ring performer came in heavily protected situations when she didn’t actually do much throughout her reign as Women’s Champion and at odd intervals through the Attitude Era. Her best work, as it turned out, came when she got back in the ring for a showdown with Brie Bella to pay off a hot summer angle and delivered an alarmingly great performance in the ring.
For her limited ring work, I had a hard time ranking McMahon any higher than this, but for her character work and the way it intertwined with her limited wrestling, I did feel compelled to include her.
270 and 271. Luke and Butch
Top kayfabe accomplishments: The Bushwhackers hung around the WWF roster for nearly eight years.
Best moment: The Bushwhackers crashed the Rhythm and Blues party at WrestleMania 6, taking out the heels.
Rationale: The Bushwhackers, in many ways, were fine representatives of their time. Outside of the WWF, they were known as violent heels. For the WWF audience? The guys only appeared on-air as goofball faces who liked to lick each other’s heads. Meanwhile, over the course of nearly eight years, The Bushwhackers remained a mostly steady presence on WWF TV (minus a few sabbaticals) and yet never won the tag titles or really picked up any meaningful wins. They were the quintessential feel-good team of their era, though, with a distinctive look and style who could beat up on jobbers before putting over the next rising heel team.
While I certainly could rank these two separately, the WWF so overwhelmingly presented them as a unit rather than individuals with individual personalities that it simply doesn’t seem right to, and I don’t know that I could fairly differentiate them in a ranking.
269. Justin Credible
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Credible was an eight-time Hardcore Champion in the WWF.
Best moment: As Aldo Montoya, he defeated Jeff Jarrett, the reigning Intercontinental Champion, in a non-title match on WWF Superstars.
Rationale: After a rough go of it as the masked “Portugese Man O’War” Aldo Montoya, Credible found his footing as a wrestler in ECW. He returned to the WWF when ECW collapsed, and showed some signs of life, aligning himself with X-Pac and Albert to form X-Factor and later worked as a lower card guy for The Alliance.
At the end of the day, it seems like little coincidence that Credible was at his best in ECW — his personality and his strengths as a worker didn’t jive all that well with the WWF landscape for the time he was there, but he was able to carve a name for himself on a smaller stage.
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Maryse is a two-time Divas Champion.
Best moment: Maryse defeated Michele McCool in late 2008 to win her first Divas Championship.
Rationale: Maryse is a beautiful woman who was a deceptively talented professional wrestler, particularly good at nailing her character’s arrogant mannerisms while working in the ring. No, she didn’t have the polish or fire of today’s crop of female stars, but she was a solid top heel during her main run.
While Maryse worked on and off as a manager during her first three-year run, she was all the better in a managerial role when she came back to corner her real-life husband The Miz in spring 2016. While Miz has certainly grown as a performer over time, Maryse turned out to be the missing ingredient to help push his arrogant heel shtick and take his heat to the next level. After his lukewarm run at the top of the card in 2011, I don’t know that anyone expected they’d want to see him in the main event again, but with the right booking, steady improvement, and not least of all Maryse by his side, he looked ready to be a player again.
267. Yoshi Tatsu
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Tatsu was a successful face for WWE’s ECW and on the final season of NXT before it transitioned to a proper, continuous developmental brand.
Best moment: Tatsu defeated Shelton Benjamin in his first appearance on ECW.
Rationale: Yoshi Tatsu was a solid mid-card guy who added some color to the ranks of ECW as the brand started to transition to less extreme, and less of full-fledged third brand — more of a developmental league to foreshadow NXT. Tatsu was also a solid contributor to NXT Redemption as a pro mentor. Unfortunately, in the spaces in between, Tatsu never really found his niche on the main roster and despite his appealing striking and aerial skills, went three years without getting to even, really, establish himself as a firm mid-carder, but rather more of a lower-card guy, one step above jobber.
266. Lelaini Kai
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Kai was the Women’s Champion once, and a two-time Women’s Tag Team Champion.
Best moment: Kai walked into the first WrestleMania as the reigning Women’s Champion and put over red-hot Wendi Richter for the title there in Madison Square Garden.
Rationale: Kai was a solid, if unspectacular contributor to the women’s division in the early days of WrestleMania, whose efforts included putting over Wendi Richter and maintaining a steady presence in the short-lived Women’s Tag Team Championship scene, paired with Judy Martin as The Glamour Girls.
Holding the Women’s Championship at the first WrestleMania, if nothing else, gave Kai credibility for years to come which included placing her as a reasonable challenger to Alundra Blayze’s Women’s Championship nearly a decade later, back in Madison Square Garden for WrestleMania 10.
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Mideon was a one-time European Champion and two-time Tag Team Champion.
Best moment: Mideon had a strange, but time- and character-appropriate title win, when he literally picked up the European Championship that Shane McMahon no longer cared much about, from the latter man’s bag and declared himself champ.
Rationale: After an uneven run as Phineas I Godwinn in which he largely played a second to Henry O Godwinn, Dennis Knight re-debuted and was promptly abducted and repackaged via Ministry of Darkness shenanigans to become Mideon. If you’re going to play second fiddle to someone, The Undertaker was at least a significant upgrade.
Mideon was mostly a tag guy and henchmen for his WWF run, but performed well enough in the role as a reasonably skilled big body. Ironically, his late comedic work, particularly as Naked Mideon, may be what he’s best remembered for, despite probably being his weakest overall work as a sports entertainer.
264. Alexa Bliss
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Bliss is a two-time and (as of this writing) reigning SmackDown Women’s Champion.
Best moment: Bliss defeated Becky Lynch in a Tables Match at TLC 2016 to win her first Women’s Championship.
Rationale: Bliss is the kind of star who will, in all likelihood, have some serious upward movement on a countdown like this as the years go by. After improving significantly over the course of her NXT tenure, Bliss got drafted to SmackDown for the brand split a little under ripe, only to blossom before our eyes into a super compelling heel. While WWE stacked the women’s roster on Raw and Becky Lynch looked like she was cast to carry things for SmackDown, Bliss has proven more than capable of being the top heel on the brand, and her wicked character is increasingly buyable as champion.
263. Charlie Haas
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Haas was a three-time Tag Team Champion in WWE.
Best moment: Haas and partner Shelton Benjamin successfully defended the Tag Team Championship at WrestleMania 19 over Los Guerreros and the team of Chris Benoit and Rhyno (particularly noteworthy in retrospect for each of the defeated teams featuring a guy who’d be a world champion by the end of the next year’s WrestleMania).
Rationale: Haas had a strange, unpredictable journey through WWE. He came into developmental teaming with his real life brother Russ, only for Russ to pass away unexpectedly due to heart issues. Charlie carried on, though, finding his way to the main roster and immediately moving into a starring role teaming with Shelton Benjamin to back Kurt Angle. The two almost immediately won tag gold, known first as Team Angle, later billed as The World’s Greatest Tag Team — an arrogant, heelish name choice to be sure, but not one that wasn’t entirely off base given how good they were or the limitations of at least WWE’s tag division heading into that era.
While Benjamin would flirt with a big push when he went solo, defeating Triple H and Chris Jericho before settling into a solid Intercontinental Championship holder/contender for much of his run, Haas largely floundered from there, mostly a lower mid-card guy who’s most memorable moments were an ugly little accident when he accidentally knocked Lillian Garcia from the ring apron to the floor, and his short-lived reunion with Benjamin.
So Haas goes down as one of those guys with huge potential and raw talent, set back by a combination of bad luck and never really getting his break as a singles guy.
262. Layla El
Top kayfabe accomplishments: El was a one-time Women’s Champion and one-time Divas Champion.
Best moment: At Extreme Rules 2012, El defeated Nikki Bella to win the Divas Championship.
Rationale: El is that unusual talent who moved on from the Diva Search to hang around WWE for over eight years, and withstand the naysayers to actually grow into a respectable talent in the ring. She’s probably best remembered for her run with Michelle McCool as the mean girls duo called LayCool, for which they played their part nicely, but she performed well enough, too, as a face down the road, and managing a range of talent (I’d argue at her best in William Regal’s corner).
It’s tough to rank El for going from the kind of talent who wouldn’t make the countdown at all to later becoming someone you could argue should show up a good bit higher on the list. Regardless, she earned her spot in WWE history as an underrated talent from a lackluster period in women’s wrestling for the company.
261. Robert Gibson
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Gibson, as half of The Rock ’n’ Roll Express, carried the Smoky Mountain Wrestling Tag Team Championships into Survivor Series 1993.
Best moment: The Rock ’n’ Roll Expresses bout with The Heavenly Bodies at Survivor Series 1993 was a fine exhibition that showed the veteran team still had some gas in the tank and that SMW was worth paying attention to.
Rationale: It’s all but impossible to fairly rank The Rock ’n’ Roll Express on a WWE-only countdown like this. They’re one of the greatest tag teams of all time, clearly met the criteria of a minimum of three WWF/E matches to qualify for the list, and yet were never treated as featured performers in WWF. The closest to their prime that they appeared on WWF television (which was still a good five or so years past their actual prime), they were guest players from Smoky Mountain Wrestling, as part of a special deal brokered by Jim Cornette. In that role they put on a good match opposite The Heavenly Bodies on PPV. From there, the Express was back, more formally in the WWF for a short spell in 1998, but clearly there more as bodies with name recognition than stars in their own right.
Still, even in diminished roles and jobbing to younger acts who could hardly lace their boots, The Rock ’n’ Roll Express did itself proud, performing as professionals and doing what was asked of them ably.
260. Ricky Morton
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Morton, as half of The Rock ’n’ Roll Express, carried the Smoky Mountain Wrestling Tag Team Championships into Survivor Series 1993.
Best moment: The Rock ’n’ Roll Expresses bout with The Heavenly Bodies at Survivor Series 1993 was a fine exhibition that showed the veteran team still had some gas in the tank and that SMW was worth paying attention to.
Rationale: Most of what I wrote about Robert Gibson carries over here, but unlike a handful of other pairs in this ranking, I didn’t feel Gibson and Morton were interchangeable for WWF’s purposes. I’ve always felt Morton’s just a little better — selling like death on heat segments, garnering the fans sympathy like few before or since. So, he gets the nod one spot ahead of his tag team partner, though if a list like this were recalibrated to take all of their career work into consideration, including everything outside of the WWF, rest assured Morton would land much higher on the list.
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Jazz was a two-time Women’s Champion in WWE.
Best moment: Though Lita and Trish Stratus are the icons from their era of women’s wrestling in WWE, it was Jazz who prevailed over the both of them at WrestleMania 18 in a Triple Threat, retaining the Women’s Championship when she pinned Lita.
Rationale: Jazz was sort of like the Beth Phoenix of her era — bigger and more powerful than the rest of her cohort, not to mention a skilled in-ring worker and athlete. After her two title reigns, Jazz stalled out a bit, though, and in a little under three years she was on her way off the roster. While I’d argue WWE creative is more to blame than the performer for the lack of character advancement or maintaining her momentum, she nonetheless comes up a little short for the purposes of this countdown for lack of longevity and slipping behind Stratus, Lita, and Victoria for notoriety during her tenure.
257 and 258. Doug and Danny Basham
Top kayfabe accomplishments: The Basham Brothers were two-time Tag Team Champions in WWE.
Best moment: The Bashams defeated Los Guerreros to win their first tag titles in 2003.
Rationale: While Doug and Danny Basham were not real brothers, and did each have brief runs as singles wrestlers, they were nonetheless portrayed mostly as two halves of a whole throughout their WWE tenure, and thus it only seemed right to rank them together.
The team was successful, winning the tag titles twice and were arguably booked as the top non-thrown-together team of their era on SmackDown. The trouble is that that was a pretty underwhelming time for tag team wreslting on the whole, and the Bashams never seemed to lock down an identity, moving from being vaguely S&M themed with Shaniqua as their manager, to a straight-laced part of JBL’s Cabinet stable. The team was, in the end, a solid pairing for its time, but it would be interesting to have seen how they might have held up, or maybe even flourished in a better era for tag teams.
256. Enzo Amore
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Amore has been a high profile player on Raw since his debut post WrestleMania 32, paired with Big Cass.
Best moment: Kayfabe nemeses Luke Gallows and Karl Anderson arranged for Amore and Big Cass’s microphones to be cut off so they couldn’t deliver their signature entrance promo. In demonstrating a real connection to the crowd, Amore in particular was able to pull off the promo, seamlessly, based on the crowd knowing the material so well, and committing to his shtick.
Rationale: Amore is, at his best, a callback to Attitude Era acts like The Road Dogg for having a distinctive and powerful talking game, prone to getting the crowd to “sing along,” but little to show when he steps in the ring. Amore is, at this point, a lesser in-ring talent than The Dogg, who it could be argued was holding back his skills as part of the character; the jury is still out on what Amore has to contribute in the ring. Nonetheless, he may find his niche as, if nothing else, Big Cass’s manager and/or sidekick — adding sizzle to the big guy’s act when he goes the singles route, and perhaps playing an effective victim for big time rivals to get at him.
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Hornswoggle is a one-time Cruiserweight Champion.
Best moment: Hornswoggle participated in a deceptively great WeeLC match with El Torito.
Rationale: At first blush, you wouldn’t expect much of Hornswoggle’s legacy. He debuted as the leprechaun sidekick to Finlay, in a placement that it landed somewhere between hilarious and kind of offensive. Nonetheless, he got over as a mischievous little villain, before transitioning to a lovable little guy in the land of giants — particularly likable as a victim of JBL, and then supporting Finlay against the big bully at WrestleMania 24.
Like so many largely comedic novelty acts in WWE, Hornswoggle suffered from over-exposure including an absolutely painful and painfully long rivalry with Chavo Guerrero and WWE blowing the Mr. McMahon’s illegitimate son angle on him. Just the same, when given an opportunity to shine in the mid-card, Hornswoggle had some great moments. Most particularly, the guy’s talent was on display when he had a like-sized opponent show up in the form of El Torito. While their encounters could have been dismissed as comedy, the two men assembled some hellacious battles — particularly in WeeLC — that demonstrated, beneath it all, Hornswoggle was not only an entertainer, but a very good wrestler.
254. Darren Young
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Young is a one-time Tag Team Champion and was briefly a fringe main event player upon the debut of The Nexus.
Best moment: Young joined other alumni of NXT Season 1 in beating up John Cena and tearing apart the ringside area to launch the original Nexus stable.
Rationale: Young has become best-known as WWE’s first active roster member who is openly gay with not just the locker room, but the fans. There’s more to the guy, though — he’s got a winning personality and an impressive physique to boot. Here and there, he’s shown glimmers of being a skilled wrestler as well, though his in-ring game still appears to be a work in progress.
Nonetheless, Young got plenty of exposure as an original member of The Nexus, and did well for himself in the aftermath, including partaking in the fun Prime Time Players tag team that probably would have gotten more traction sooner had hitting their stride not coincided directly with Team Hell No and then The Shield taking off.
WWE’s efforts at pushing Young as a singles star, particularly with Bob Backlund as his manager, haven’t exactly caught fire, and he seems on a perpetual loop of either tagging with or feuding with Titus O’Neil. The next few years should be telling in shaping Young’s longer term WWE legacy.
253. Bart Gunn
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Gunn won the Brawl For All tournament (a shoot but this listing wouldn’t feel complete without a mention of it), and picked up four tag title reigns
Best moment: I’m going to bend the rules here because Gunn’s best moment was actually a shoot — against all expectations, he legitimately KOed heavily favored Steve Williams in the Brawl For All tournament. While the moment did little for Gunn in the long run, it was historically important for cutting short WWF’s tentative main event plans for Williams, and for shoring up that WWF wouldn’t meaningfully pursue the shoot fighting business in a sustained fashion. (Side note: Gunn also did go on to win the whole tournament, but the story was this second-round win on the way there.)
Rationale: Take out Brawl For All, and Bart would be a solid, if largely forgettable tag team guy from the 1990s — sort of a poor man’s Marty Jannetty to Billy Gunn’s poor man’s Shawn Michaels. Gunn was a perfectly serviceable, deceptively big and strong member of The Smoking Gunns before moving along to tag with Bob Holly in The New Midnight Express.
But then there’s Brawl For All. On one hand, you could argue it made Gunn’s legacy for giving him a landmark accomplishment and a reason to get a featured singles bout at a WrestleMania — the lone shoot fight in ‘Mania history. On the other hand, running afoul of the WWF’s long-term plans for pushing Steve Williams may well have done more to hurt Gunn’s prospects, as there was no flying under the radar or quietly working his way up after he’d punched out Jim Ross’s golden boy on national TV.
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Jacqueline was a two-time Women’s Champion and one-time Cruiserweight Champion in the WWF.
Best moment: Jacqueline defeated Sable to be crowned Women’s Champion in 1998 — the first African-American woman to hold a title in the WWF.
Rationale: My first exposure to Jacqueline came in 1993 when, on account of actively wrestling men on more than one occasion in the Memphis-based USWA, she was the first woman ranked in Pro Wrestling Illustrated’s PWI 500. She’d get a false-start with the WWF not long after, before properly joining the company in 1998.
Jacqueline promptly added a sense of toughness and stiff offense to the women’s division, and was quite arguably part of the foundation to bridge the era of Sable as the eye-candy top female star, to Trish Stratus and Lita legitimizing the division for a spell toward the end of the Attitude Era. She’d go on to a deceptively long WWF run, stretching all the way to 2004, often in the title picture.
251. Dino Bravo
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Bravo held the short-lived and mostly forgotten Canadian Championship (he was the only one to ever hold the title).
Best moment: In a moment I remember vividly from the pages of Apter mags, though it was never addressed on WWF TV, Bravo bearhugged world champ Hulk Hogan until he had to be stretchered out of the arena. One can only assume the company might have been scheming a main event angle for Bravo that never materialized in the company’s canon.
Rationale: Dino Bravo mesmerized me as a kid on account of his power and physique — and, indeed, his WWF gimmick was based almost exclusively on these factors (with an extra nod of the head to him being French-Canadian). The guy never really broke the lower-mid-card glass ceiling, though, peaking when he played Earthquake’s sidekick against Hulk Hogan, but never really going anywhere. After over five years with the company, Bravo retired from wresting, and tragically died not long after — shot to death in a murder that’s often been speculated to have been related to organized crime in Montreal.
250. Curtis Axel
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Axel is a one-time Intercontinental and one-time Tag Team Champion.
Best moment: Rebranded as a Hulk Hogan impersonator, Axel shook hands with Damien Sandow, acting like Randy Savage, for a gimmick that looked as though it might reinvent their careers. It may have been a comedy gimmick, but it was a genuinely funny one and lent purpose to both characters just as they looked lost.
Rationale: After a forgettable run as Michael McGillicutty as part of The Nexus, Curtis Axel re-debuted. It’s funny to look back on that time, as WWE teased making him a main event talent, pairing him with Paul Heyman and gifting him wins (albeit indecisive ones) over Triple H, John Cena, and Chris Jericho. Axel failed to get over though, despite the push and very good in-ring skills, which led to him heading back to the thick of the mid-card (before slipping lower).
Axel’s had his fun moments since, in his ‘I never really got eliminated from the Royal Rumble’ gimmick and subsequent Axelmania run that got cut unfortunately short when Hulk Hogan had his racially charged recording scandal. Unfortunately, he seems sentenced to a pretty permanent spot as a lower-card mechanic.
249. Sensational Sherri
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Sherriwas a one-time Women’s Champion in the WWF.
Best moment: Sherri was part of an absolutely bonkers promo with Randy Savage and Zeus to build to their PPV confrontation with Hulk Hogan and Brutus Beefcake that included her climbing a prop side of a steel cage from one side to the other as the interview went on.
Rationale: Sherribegan her WWF tenure as a wrestler, and did so in impressive fashion — a solid performer, and promptly winning the Women’s Championship, which she’d go on to hold for over a year. She went from face to heel, and then the WWF more or less gave up on women’s wrestling for a while, which sent Sherri into the managers’ ranks.
In a ranking of all-time best WWE managers, Sherri would rate, but unfortunately her in-ring career more or less came to a halt inside two years, with only sporadic appearances from there like a mixed tag match opposite Sapphire and brawling with Luna Vachon at ringside toward the end of her tenure. Nonetheless, she was a great wrestling mind and worker who didn’t get enough of a chance to show how good she was.
248. Bo Dallas
Top kayfabe accomplishments: After a well-decorated run in NXT that included a solid run as the developmental brand’s top champ, Dallas has been a persistent mid-carder on the main roster, including a couple undefeated streaks.
Best moment: In his first main roster run, before the Bo-Lieve gimmick, face Dallas won his way into the Royal Rumble and got himself noticed by eliminating Wade Barrett from the match.
Rationale: In his first main roster run, Bo Dallas never quite clicked as an underdog face. He returned to NXT and seemed to find himself, transforming into an over-the-top motivational-speaker-type whose optimism crossed the threshold of becoming asinine and became a successful heel and top player on the brand. Unfortunately, back on the main roster, he quickly found himself lost in the mid-card shuffle again. WWE’s tried a few different takes on him, including working with the Social Outcasts comedy stable, then taking on a more serious persona. The guy’s got talent and a stellar pedigree, so here’s hoping he might find his way before he’s released.
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Kaval won season two of NXT’s televised, kayfabe competition.
Best moment: Kaval was crowned the NXT season two winner and, true to his undersized underdog character, promptly endured a beating from the rest of the contestants.
Rationale: In 2017, former indy darlings get the run of WWE, with guys like Kevin Owens, AJ Styles, Sami Zayn, and Samoa Joe in high profile positions, competing at or near the main event level.
2010 was a different story.
Sadly, Kaval came at the wrong time when his remarkable in-ring prowess was under-appreciated. While the NXT victory offered some level of recognition he was special, he whiled away his proper main roster time in the mid-card losing more than he one, not getting to show much personality and edging toward an awkward ladies’ man gimmick before purportedly asking for his release so he could go back to tearing it up on the indies, after less than a half a year in front of a national audience.
246. Ted Dibiase Jr.
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Dibiase was a two-time Tag Team Champion and had a PPV main event match at Hell in a Cell 2009, teaming with Cody Rhodes against DX.
Best moment: Dibiase cinched in the Million Dollar Dream on Shawn Michaels while Cody Rhodes applied a ring-post-assisted figure four leglock to force HBK to tap out and give Legacy the submission victory over DX at Breaking Point.
Rationale: Ted Dibiase had a great look and a great pedigree. While he was never the worker his father was, nor did he have the Million Dollar Man’s charisma, he did show improvement over the years. His membership in the Legacy stable beneath Randy Orton looked to be his big opportunity to come out a major player for WWE. Despite going toe-to-toe with DX and then Orton himself, though, Dibiase stalled out, ultimately losing his two biggest feuds and getting firmly entrenched in the mid-card. From there, he had a lukewarm face turn, long after what might have been a red hot face turn in the breakup of Legacy, and stalled out again in the lower mid-card. Dibiase has since mostly retired from wrestling.
At 34, it’s not out of the question Dibiase could still give WWE another whirl but he seemed a bit disillusioned with his first go round and it’s doubtful he’d get any bigger opportunities on a second go-round. Thus he goes down as a solid mid-carder whose main event potential was never realized.
245. Big Cass
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Cass worked the Raw main event and been featured on PPV multiple times teaming with Enzo.
Best moment: In May 2016, Cass stood up to Chris Jericho and found himself booked in a main event match with him on Raw. While the match itself didn’t amount to much, it seemed to suggest Cass was being vaulted to singles stardom.
Rationale: In NXT, Enzo Amore and Big Cass were an oddball team. Amore had the gift for gab, Cass had the imposing physical presence, and they even wound up with Carmella for eye candy. The trouble is that none of the three had much in the way of in-ring talent.
While Cass still has a ways to go, since getting moved to Raw with Amore, he’s improved steadily both in the ring and on the mic. On a few occasions, WWE has gone so far as to tease a big singles push for him, putting him in the picture for the vacant Universal Title in the fall, and pairing off with Chris Jericho and Kevin Owens for singles matches before that. While Cass is still largely an unproven commodity and WWE hasn’t quite pulled the trigger on a big push, he’s also been reasonably protected with Amore taking most of the abuse and absorbing most of the losses for the team, while Cass continues to loom as a prospective main event talent for the years ahead.
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Funaki was a one-time Cruiserweight Champoin and one-time Hardcore Champion.
Best moment: Funaki defeated Spike Dudley to win the Cruiserweight Championship at Armageddon 2004.
Rationale: Funaki, against all odds, lasted over a decade with WWE, from the KaiEnTai stable and tag team during the Attitude Era, to working as SmackDown’s number one announcer, to working the cruiserweight division and largely being featured in comedic spots (he’s back now as a legit Japanese announcer, too).
While WWE used him mostly for comedy, Funaki was a talented in-ring performer who played his part (as one-dimensional as it was) well.
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Melina was a three-time Women’s Champion and two-time Divas Champion in WWE.
Best moment: In the fall of 2009, Melina made a surprise return to Raw and promptly won the Women’s Championship from new titleholder Jillian Hall.
Rationale: Melina falls in the gray space between more decisively talented stars like Trish Stratus and Mickie James, and the Kelly Kelly, Candice Michelle set that she stood head and shoulders above. Ultimately, Melina’s unique look, impressive flexibility, and ability to sell a mean streak helped her stand out from the crowd and become one of the definitive female stars for the period between the Trish Stratus and Charlotte Flair eras. Moreover, she deserves credit for advancing as a performer, starting out more character than wrestler, and ending up very respectable in the ring by the time her six-year tenure with WWE was through.
242. Karl Anderson
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Anderson is, as of this writing, a reigning Raw Tag Team Champion.
Best moment: Anderson made his very first appearance on WWE TV, leap-frogging NXT, to show up on Raw with partner Luke Gallows and lay waste to The Usos.
Rationale: Well-traveled and in his late thirties, it was more or less accepted that Anderson was going to be one of those great indy and overseas stars who never crossed over to WWE. Things took an unexpected turn when WWE opted to raid New Japan, and Anderson got the bump straight to the main roster. While he hasn’t had an opportunity to shine as an individual, at their best, Gallows and Anderson have been portrayed as hard-nosed heels with tremendous skill. Anderson has held up his end as a steady mechanic and rode out some early questionable comedy bits to see the team through to its current championship glory.
241. Jason Jordan
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Jordan is, as of this writing, a reigning SmackDown Tag Team Champion.
Best moment: As American Alpha, Gable and Jason Jordan pulled off a huge upset, defeating Bray Wyatt and Randy Orton to win their first gold on the main roster.
Rationale: After struggling to find a direction in WWE’s developmental system, Jason Jordan got paired with Chad Gable, and out came American Alpha, a modern-day team that’s reminiscent of The Steiners and The World’s Greatest Tag Team. Jordan is the bigger member who has proven particularly adept at working the hot tag, running wild over unfortunate heels.
While Alpha hasn’t yet had time to really carve its legacy on the main roster, the guys have been treated like big deals on SmackDown and if they retain management’s favor, there’s every reason to believe they could be one of the best celebrated tag teams of this era.
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Eugene was a one-time Tag Team Champion in WWE.
Best moment: In a series of training vignettes, Eugene won over heel trainer William Regal (and the hearts of the fans) by proving his unlikely talent as a mat technician.
Rationale: Man is it hard to categorize Eugene. On one hand, you have a gifted mechanic saddled with the gimmick of being mentally challenged to the point that it was difficult for fans to take him seriously. On the other hand, the gimmick gave the worker a distinctive, unforgettable identity. On one hand, you could argue the portrayal of neurological divergence was offensive. On the other hand, you could argue he drew awareness differently minded individuals, and was even a positive role model for being a successful wrestler.
I don’t know that there will ever be a consensus on these bigger questions around Eugene. Nonetheless, after he was introduced as heel authority figure Eric Bischoff’s nephew, the character got over quickly, which led to big-time upper card exposure, which quickly gave way to over-exposure of an act that would probably have been better left understated. From there, Eugene rode out his days — a deceptively long three and a half years — as a lower card guy. Eugene gets credit in this countdown for his skilled workmanship — solid in the ring and, in a sense, like Terry Taylor, particularly good at weaving his gimmick into his ring work, despite never getting taken all that seriously outside of his initial push.
239. Spike Dudley
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Dudley was a one-time European Champion, one-time Cruiserweight Champion, eight-time Hardcore Champion, and one-time Tag Team Champion in the WWF.
Best moment: While best remembered as a sidekick to Bubba Ray and D-Von, Spike’s lone tag title reign came at their expense, as he and Tazz beat the other Dudleys.
Rationale: While it’s easy to look at Spike as overshadowed by his bigger, better celebrated kayfabe brothers, he built a solid little legacy for himself in the WWF as an underdog who won his share of mid-card hardware and was loveable in his role, particularly rising up against his bully brothers, or acting as the small-in-stature, big-in-heart cavalry to help them, like when he charged the ring to back them up at WrestleMania 17.
While Spike was never going to break through from the mid-card pack, he demonstrated admirable longevity with a solid four-year run on the main roster, through the late stages of the Attitude Era and the years to immediately follow.
238. Tyler Breeze
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Breeze picked up a handful of mid-card wins, most memorably a victory over Dolph Ziggler at Survivor Series 2015.
Best moment: Breeze made his main roster debut by attacking Dolph Ziggler and aligning himself with Summer Rae on Raw.
Rationale: Breeze gradually grew into one of NXT’s finest total package performers — a talented guy in the ring who fully embraced his diva-ish character. Unfortunately, he’s one of those guys who came up to the main roster with little in the way of long-term plans laid out for him and wound up lost in the shuffle very quickly. He seems to have found a stable enough spot with fellow forgotten gem, Fandango, as a lower-card tag team on SmackDown.
One would hope Breeze might get another shot at being taken seriously, particularly after the potential he demonstrated opposite guys like Sami Zayn in NXT, but the jury is out for now.
237. Jimmy Del Rey
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Del Ray won the Smoky Mountain Wrestling Tag Team Championship at a WWF show at Survivor Series 1993.
Best moment: As half of The Heavenly Bodies, and as visitors from Smoky Mountain Wrestling before they got signed to the WWF, Del Ray put on a sensational bout opposite The Steiner Brothers at SummerSlam 1993.
Rationale: Del Ray was hyper-agile and a skilled worker for his day, whose efforts alongside Tom Prichard were ahead of their time from 1993 to 1995. He worked under the nickname “Gigolo,” which is pretty interesting from that family-friendly period in WWE history, though it becomes clearer with the context that he reportedly got the nickname from Jim Cornette on account of his jiggly physique, not any implication he was a gentleman of the night. Give Del Ray another run with WWF, or an opportunity to work in a cruiserweight division and I could easily see him having improved upon his legacy for the purposes of this countdown.
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Sabu was a staple player and main eventer for the WWE version of ECW in its first year.
Best moment: Sabu teamed with fellow original ECW stars, Rov Van Dam, The Sandman, and Tommy Dreamer to defeat a group of newer stars in a tag match at WrestleMania 23.
Rationale: Sabu is one of the most distinctive, important stars of a generation. Unfortunately, his best, most influential work came in the mid-1990s and he didn’t make it to WWE until 2006 at which point he still had a great mad man’s look and a lot of heart, but was well past his physical prime — working at half speed and botching key spots.
Sabu earns his spot on the countdown for the credibility he brought the fledgling ECW, offering hope that it might be a faithful adaptation of the original promotion before WWE threw in the towel in favor of more of a developmental territory.
235. Drew McIntyre
Top kayfabe accomplishments: McIntyre is a one-time Intercontinental and one-time Tag Team Champion in WWE.
Best moment: At TLC 2009, McIntyre, still a relative newcomer, defeated the popular John Morrison to win the Intercontinental Championship.
Rationale: McIntyre looked as though he had a rocket strapped to his back given his early Intercontinental Championship win and Vince McMahon kayfabe anointing him as a future world champion. Despite impressing early on — getting all manner of opportunities and more often than not living up to him, McIntyre seemed to be a victim of fickle booking. Though he enjoyed brief follow up success teaming with Cody Rhodes, before long, he got lost in the mid-card shuffle before somehow winding up in the doldrums with 3MB, then getting released.
McIntyre is one of those guys who enjoyed much greater success post-WWE than with the company, rising to prominence in TNA and Evolve, and working successfully for a variety of smaller promotions. Given his successes, and how high WWE was on him initially, one has to wonder if he might find his way back someday and wind up doing better for his greater experience and notoriety while he was away.
234. Chad Gable
Top kayfabe accomplishments: As of this writing, Gable is currently enjoying his first reign as a SmackDown Tag Team Champion.
Best moment: As American Alpha, Gable and Jason Jordan pulled off a huge upset, defeating Bray Wyatt and Randy Orton to win their first gold on the main roster.
Rationale: In NXT, Gable became a standout. American Alpha drew comparisons to The Steiner Brothers and The World’s Greatest Tag Team, grounded in the amateur-based technical skill and athleticism the members demonstrated. I give Gable the edge here for his dazzling flurries offense, and, all the more so, for his ability to sell, as he almost always plays the face in peril for his team and has done well at generating sympathy from fans. With only a half-year on the main roster to his name, it’s hard to properly rank Gable in the grander scheme of WWE history, but if he continues on his current trajectory, it seems likely he’ll only rise in a countdown of this nature.
233. Tom Prichard
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Prichard was a one-time Tag Team Champion, and won the Smoky Mountain Wrestling Tag Team Championship at a WWF show at Survivor Series 1993.
Best moment: As half of The Heavenly Bodies, and as visitors from Smoky Mountain Wrestling before they got signed to the WWF, Prichard put on a sensational bout that was ahead of its time opposite The Steiner Brothers at SummerSlam 1993.
Rationale: While, ironically, Prichard has grown equally if not more famous for his work as a trainer and agent in the Internet era, he was a rock solid hand in his own right when he was an active in-ring performer, working for the WWF first as half of The Heavenly Bodies, and then as Skip’s teammate in The Body Donnas. Prichard never really got much opportunity to shine in the ring with the WWF, but was nonetheless a top-tier mechanic in his day.
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Skip was a one-time Tag Team Champion in the WWF.
Best moment: Teamed with Zip, Skip won a tournament to be crowned Tag Team Champions.
Rationale: Chris Candido made the rounds, working in not only the WWF and WCW, but just about every major indy of his era. For the purposes of this countdown, he unfortunately only had a little over a year with the WWF to make his case, and more unfortunate for the wrestling world, he passed on at the age of 33, in his prime.
In the gimmick of Skip, a heel fitness guru, the guy didn’t have much of a chance to build a resume, but was a solid mid-card act who ultimately got into the thick of the tag title scene including one reign with Zip, feuding primarily with The Smoking Gunns and Godwinns. It’s a shame that Skip is generally remembered best for the manager who outshone him — Sunny, one of the WWF’s first true sex symbols who some would argue got too over, to the point that the men she backed tended to get lost in her shadow.
231. Henry O Godwminn
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Godwinn was a two-time Tag Team Champion in the WWF.
Best moment: After getting bested by Triple H, Godwinn unceremoniously dumped him into a pile of slop.
Rationale: While one might be tempted to dismiss Godwinn as a cartoonish farmer character who peaked during those awkward years leading up to the Attitude Era, the guy was a very solid big man who played loveable face well enough given the character he was given, and was all the better as a big bully of a heel, particularly toward the end of his run teamed with kayfabe relative Phineas. Together, they feuded with The Smoking Gunns and Legion of Doom, culminating in a dark turn as they transformed into the more serious Southern Justice before injuries caught up to Godwinn, and a neck injury in particular effectively ended his career.
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Kamala feuded with top-tier stars including Hulk Hogan and The Undertaker.
Best moment: Though well past his prime, Kamala had a fun, abbreviated run in 2006 as a nostalgia act who put over Umaga and passed the torch to the new savage monster on the block.
Rationale: Kamala is, in so many ways, a figure of his specific era. First of all, he was a big black man cast as a face-and-chest-painted barefoot Ugandan monster heel — the kind of gimmick that would be absurdly offensive by contemporary standards, given that even latter day rival Umaga felt like a real anachronism. On top of that, Kamala was the sort of wandering character the likes of Andre the Giant who didn’t stick around any promotion for too long, but rather appeared out of the blue as an overwhelming force then disappeared to start somewhere new.
Despite the questionable taste of his character, Kamala was an attraction and an effective monster heel in his time. The WWF quite arguably blew it with him in his most extended run in the limelight, getting beaten decisively by The Undertaker until it was hard to take the character seriously above the mid-card.
229. Taka Michinoku
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Michinoku was the WWF Light Heavyweight Champion for ten months.
Best moment: Michinoku got a one off shot for the WWF Championship and, with the backing of The APA, gave Triple H a run for his money on Raw.
Rationale: While, from a purist’s perspective, Michinoku’s best contributions to the WWF surely came in his run with the light heavyweights, for which he brought innovative aerial, striking, and grappling talents to the American audience, it’s interesting that he may be best remembered for his work with KaiEnTai — first a stable, then a tag team with Funaki that was largely played for laughs around the guys’ small stature and faux translations of their Japanese promos into English.
228. Al Snow
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Snow was a European Champion, Tag Team Champion, and six-time Hardcore Champion in WWE.
Best moment: Al Snow once competed in a Hardcore Match against himself. Rest assured, he won.
Rationale: After an underwhelming start, cast as Leif Cassidy — Marty Jannetty’s partner in The New Rockers — Snow reinvented himself in ECW, and then returned to WWE in his new gimmick, carrying around a mannequin head and inciting the crowd to chant that they wanted Head.
Silliness aside, Snow was solid in his role as a mid-card hardcore brawler, and sometimes-sidekick, sometimes-enemy to Mick Foley. While he was never going to be a megastar, he’s a prime example of how, with the right gimmick, a completely forgettable under card guy can grow into a pretty iconic mid-card role.
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Victoria was a two-time Women’s Champion.
Best moment: Victoria defeated Molly Holly to retain the Women’s Championship and earn the right to shave her opponent’s head at WrestleMania 20.
Rationale: Victoria was a rock solid worker who bridged the gap between a Trish Stratus-Lita peak, followed by a less impressive period as women’s wrestling settled into the background. She was particularly good at playing the big heel — taller and stronger than most of the other women, and especially interesting in a short-lived gimmick when she started carrying around a list of past and future victims. Impressively, she also worked well as a more generic face character, during which time she had the chance to put her athleticism on display.
226. Scotty 2 Hotty
Top kayfabe accomplishments: S2H was a one-time Light Heavyweight Champion and two-time tag champ in WWE.
Best moment: In 2000, Scotty 2 Hotty and Grandmaster Sexay defeated Edge and Christian to win Too Cool’s lone tag title.
Rationale: One aspect of the Attitude Era was unleashing a grittier, more violent, and more salacious product to appeal to the audience. Another aspect of that period was just plain getting more outlandish and letting guys show their personalities — whatever those personalities might be. Too Cool was nothing if not silly, but it gave journeymen light heavyweights Scott Taylor and Brian Christopher distinctive identities under which to ply their trade, and all the more so when they got clustered into a mini-stable with Rikishi in the upper mid-card.
Scotty 2 Hotty gets the nod for a bit higher placement on account of his iconic (love-it-or-hate-it) Worm finisher, and having more of a singles career after the team, besides teaming with Rikishi as a twosome toward the end of each of their WWE runs.
225. D’Lo Brown
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Brown was a one-time Intercontinental Champion and four-time European Champion.
Best moment: In 1998, Brown joined rarefied air as a Euro-Continental Champion (holding the European and Intercontinental Championships concurrently).
Rationale: Brown was a charismatic, mechanically sound guy with deceptive power and athleticism, who was all but built to thrive in the WWE mid-card. Arriving toward the front end of the Attitude Era, he was never going to be a main eventer, but he thrived as a top contender for (and sometimes winner of) mid-card titles, and as a role player for the Nation of Domination, before riding out his original six-year tenure as a tag team and lower card guy.
While Brown is unfortunately left out of conversations of great mechanics and mentors, his late-career efforts as a backstage agent seem to have reinforced that he’s more talented and a greater wrestling mind than he’s given credit for.
Top kayfabe accomplishments: A-Train was an Intercontinental Champion.
Best moment: Reintroduced to the WWE audience as Lord Tensai, the big guy looked like a world-beater crushing Alex Riley en route to what looked like it might have been a main event run.
Rationale: A-Train suffered the unfortunate fate of, at first, being a big guy in the land of giants such that he was physically impressive but not able to contend with bigger giants like The Big Show or more impressive workers and athletes like The Unertaker and Brock Lesnar. Thus he settled into an awkward upper mid-card spot with a serious glass ceiling over him.
The big man’s fortunes looked to change after he journeyed to Japan, got meaner, and looked primed for a main event run as Lord Tensai. The push wound up failing pretty spectacularly, though, as fans remembered Albert and his hairy back all too well, and he had the poor timing of starting this run a mere month before Brock Lesnar returned the main event monster landscape and made him effectively a joke. Thus, despite his very real talents, Tensai wound up relegated to a comedic tag team with Brodus Clay — a pair of guys who might have been killers neutered into the kid-friendly Tons of Funk.
223. Joey Mercury
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Mercury is a three-time WWE Tag Team Champion.
Best moment: Mercury was unmasked as one of CM Punk’s disciples in the Straight Edge Society when that angle was at its hottest.
Rationale: Mercury has had a WWE career that’s, on one hand intriguingly diverse in terms of his persona and whom he worked with, and on other hand pretty streamlined to cast him as a tag guy and sidekick. He started out as the less celebrated member of MNM alongside the eventual John Morrison, became CM Punk’s right hand man in the underappreciated Straight Edge Society, and presumably rounded out his career as a modern-day Stooge, half of J&J security with Jamie Noble behind budding main eventer Seth Rollins.
Through it all, Mercury never had much opportunity to break out and shine but he was a reliable, highly skilled player for every opportunity afforded him.
222. Justin Gabriel
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Gabriel is a three-time WWE Tag Team Champion.
Best moment: Gabriel took John Cena to the limit in a one-on-one match in the thick of The Nexus’s original run, and required a super-Attitude Adjustment to be put away by WWE’s top star.
Rationale: Justin Gabriel is something of a cautionary tale. He’s a gifted aerial artist in the wrestling ring who got a big push as Wade Barrett’s number two in the original Nexus stable. Unfortunately, as time went on, the bloom came off the rose and WWE started booking him like just another little guy who could do flips. When people worried for Seth Rollins coming out of The Shield, or how Neville would do in the long-term on the main roster, they were concerned about them becoming the next iterations of Gabriel’s legacy — red hot for a few months before receding and receding until they mostly worked as jobbers.
So, Gabriel gets this spot more out of potential shown than what he was allowed to accomplish in WWE. For folks interested in following him further, he’s made a decent accounting for himself in Lucha Underground, rebranded as The Darewolf PJ Black (which recently started streaming on Netflix).
221. Perry Saturn
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Saturn was a one-time European Champion and two-time Hardcore Champion.
Best moment: Along with fellow WCW defectees, Eddie Guerrero, Dean Malenko, and Chris Benoit, Saturn made a surprise debut on Raw as The Radicalz, promptly taking apart The New Age Outlaws.
Rationale: Saturn is, undoubtedly the least heralded member of The Radicalz, a solid, stiff worker with a good look whose only real crime was really being a mid-card player through and through, who was unlikely to ever break through to the main event level. Just the same, he was solid at what he did as a pugnacious role player who was effective in tag teams and mid-card matches.
Saturn purportedly took matters into his own hands in punishing jobber Mike Bell in the ring after Bell was reckless with Saturn, and many believe this caused Saturn’s de-push and silly new gimmick of being in love with a mop. Despite this inauspicious late chapter in Saturn’s three-year run with the WWF, he nonetheless performed well with what he was given.
220. Eve Torres
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Eve Torres was a three-time Divas Champion.
Best moment: Torres low-blowed Zack Ryder at WrestleMania 28 in a fascinating moment for marking the nadir of Ryder’s de-push into the WWE doghouse, and the point when her slow-burn heel turn got crystallized and she was off to bigger and better things.
Rationale: In the ring, Eve Torres is too often forgotten, but she was a deceptively talented, uber-athletic face for the better part of four years who was in and out of title contention, before really breaking out with a heel turn. A lot of fans lament that the heel turn shenanigans with John Cena and allying herself with then betraying Zack Ryder were silly and detrimental to Ryder’s long-term trajectory. While I can’t defend what happened to Ryder, I will say that Eve went from very good and underrated, to a briefly red hot villain for WWE. While she was over-exposed for a time as both an authority figure and active competitor, once things settled and she was back to focusing on wrestling, she was a solid performer who I can only imagine might have had some great matches had she entered WWE or stuck around a few years later to work with the top-tier athletes of today’s division.
219. Sin Cara
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Sin Cara was a featured player in the mid-card in 2011, and won tag gold in NXT.
Best moment: Sin Cara defeated Sin Cara Negro on SmackDown in November 2011 to put an end to a confusing, yet distinctive storyline and look to move on to bigger and better things.
Rationale: Sin Cara’s story is a strange one, and one of the very few cases in which I’m ranking multiple wrestlers in the same spot, on account that WWE never really acknowledged a change in who worked under the hood, and the chronology can get a bit confusing.
Sin Cara — formerly Mistico — was a huge star in Mexico and looked to be a major acquisition for WWE. He struggled to adapt to WWE’s style, though (afterward, he’d complain WWE didn’t let him work his style) and both sides tired of each other. He wound up leaving the company before he had the chance to accomplish much of note, only to be replaced Hunico — the former faux-Sin Cara (Negro) who had worked heel against him. The new Sin Cara became primarily a tag team and lower card wrestler.
Sin Cara was, at least, historically important for WWE as his tenure helped solidify WWE’s conviction in its Performance Center and having most new talent, regardless of how experienced they were, work in NXT to get accustomed to WWE’s style before hitting the main roster.
218. Marc Mero
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Mero was a one-time Intercontinental Champion.
Best moment: Mero played the misogynist well, and was perfectly willing to get humiliated to pay off the storyline, taking a kick to the groin and powerbomb from Sable.
Rationale: Mero has a black mark next to his name for the much-publicized fact that he got a top-dollar contract on his way into the WWF and, in particular, was pegged as having more star potential than Steve Austin. Moreover, Mero’s legacy also gets wildly overshadowed by Sable — his manager who became one of wrestling’s most iconic sex symbols of all time and who wound up getting the best of a feud with him.
While Mero may not be an all-time great, he was a perfectly competent worker with a good look, decent charisma, and an underrated ability to thrive as a both a mid-card face and heel. He put in three years of service in WWE, and was a solid contributor in his role.
217. Bull Buchanan
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Buchanan won one Tag Team Championship in WWE.
Best moment: While this selection undercuts the talent Buchanan had, I nonetheless couldn’t pick any I liked more from his WWE career than when he came back, a decade past his prime, to confront John Cena on Raw in a comedy segment, and blame him for ruining his career via the humiliation of playing Cena’s sidekick years back.
Rationale: Looking back at footage of Buchanan, he was a deceptively athletic big man who unfortunately never quite found his place as more than a tag guy or background player for bigger stars. He teamed up with The Big Boss Man early in his tenure (notable dressed pretty identically to The Shield), and later became a under-appreciated workhorse for the Right To Censor faction. Buchanan wound up his three years on the main roster by becoming B-2 — a heater for budding heel John Cena in a rapper gimmick.
While Buchanan never really had the chance to shine, his ring-game in particular holds up well over time as one of the better mid-card big men of his day.
216. Chris Masters
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Masters enjoyed a brief flirtation with the upper card and main event in the second half of his rookie campaign with WWE.
Best moment: Post SummerSlam 2005, Masters inserted himself into a feud with Shawn Michaels. While you can argue he wasn’t ready to hang with HBK, he looked like a star, and a viable threat, in that first promo, launching the program.
Rationale: Masters is a philosophically fascinating figure in WWE history. He got a big push early on largely on account of his remarkable physique, but was in the wrong place at the wrong time as the culture of the company shifted, and the WWE brass started cracking down on steroids and supplements. Masters played by the rules and wound up slimming way down, which led to getting de-pushed.
Ironically, the slimmer Masters who management wasn’t as behind — particularly after he left and came back for a second tenure — was actually a much sharper and smarter worker. Unfortunately, without the look, his opportunities were limited. Masters had a decent run as a face, but never quite made it out of the lower card again. He’ll remain on the list of guys it’s not unreasonable to think might come back someday, and there’s reason to believe would keep coming back better than the time before.
215. TJ Perkins
Top kayfabe accomplishments: TJ Perkins was the inaugural Cruiserweight Champion for the current version of the title.
Best moment: While it’s bending the rules a little bit, I’m going to go ahead and give it to Perkins’s awesome win over Gran Metalik to win the WWE Network-exclusive Cruiserweight Classic tournament and by extension the relaunched Cruiserweight Championship.
Rationale: TJ Perkins got an inspired introduction to the WWE audience, free to work his style and given plenty of time to put on great matches in the Cruiserweight Classic tournament, before getting introduced to the mainstream TV audience as the Cruiserweight Champion. He had a good rivalry going with Brian Kendrick. Unfortunately for Perkins, creative didn’t offer much to define his character besides over-the-top video game music and graphics on his entrance, and while Perkins was good in the ring, he didn’t have a chance to be spectacular in this run.
Since dropping the title to Kendrick, Perkins has receded to being just another guy in the Cruiswerweight ranks. He’s still a relatively fresh face for the WWE audience, though, and has only had a chance to show glimmers of the submission skills that back up his aerial skills. Hopefully, he’ll get more opportunities to shine on the main roster as time marches on.
214. Ludvig Borga
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Borga feuded with Lex Luger in the main event scene, including taking the final fall courtesy of Luger in the Survivor Series 1993 main event.
Best moment: Borga ended Tatanka’s undefeated streak by crushing him on TV and pinning him with a single finger to set him up as a heel monster and budding main event talent.
Rationale: Memory is a funny thing. From a child’s eyes, I remember being in awe of Borga, and completely bought into him as a threat to Lex Luger, and as a potential main eventer. Looking at Borga more objectively now, he was a competent powerhouse, but not particularly remarkable outside of getting a strong kayfabe push.
Borga might have better established his WWF legacy, or have slipped down the card given more time, but his push got cut short when he suffered an ankle injury. He wound up leaving the WWF less than a half year in and transitioned to work the rest of his pro wrestling career in Europe, before a brief stint in MMA.
213. The Patriot
Top kayfabe accomplishments: The Patriot feuded with Bret Hart over the WWF Championship in 1997.
Best moment: The Patriot, with an assists from Shawn Michaels, pinned main eventer Bret Hart on Raw in July 1997.
Rationale: After a decade of honing his in-ring game and his gimmick, The Patriot arrived in WWE. Though he was only around for about half of a year, that half-year was notable for him being the perfect guy with the perfect gimmick to rival Bret Hart in his new anti-American heel character, as the head of The Hart Foundation. While The Patriot didn’t exactly light the world on fire, particularly working alongside guys like Hart, Michaels, and The Undertaker at the top of the card, he was nonetheless treated like a player immediately and was up to the task as a seasoned, well-traveled professional.
The character lost some steam once Hart got the best of him, then the run really got cut short after The Patriot suffered a real-life tricep tear that effectively ended his WWE tenure and led to his retirement.
212. The Barbarian
Top kayfabe accomplishments: The Barbarian made good showings for himself at a range of PPVs during his WWF tenure, including a one-on-one victory at WrestleMania 6.
Best moment: The Barbarian and The Warlord pulled off one of the most interesting swerves in wrestling, working a double turn with Demolition when they joined Mr. Fuji, and in so doing turned Demolition face by default.
Rationale: While his kayfabe resume is relatively thin, The Barbarian enjoyed a solid six years with WWE, first as half of The Powers of Pain — a tag team too often dismissed as a Road Warriors clone but that did all right for itself on their own merits, and particularly in their feud with Demolition — as a rebranded singles guy under the direction of Bobby Heenan, and finally, in his second tenure as a stand-in Headshrinker.
Despite never breaking through to all-that-remarkable success, The Barbarian was a reliable, steady hand with a good look who fit the WWF well in several roles.
211. Alicia Fox
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Fox is a one-time Divas Champion.
Best moment: On a May 2014 episode of Raw, as Fox was getting set up to challenge for the Divas Championship, she had a complete meltdown that included pummeling ringside officials and guzzling sodas Steve Austin style. It’s not that the moment itself was objectively great so much as that it was a wild non-sequitur and, in a time when the women of WWE didn’t have much to do character-wise, made Fox the talk of WWE, if just for a night.
Rationale: While Fox is not an all-time great female wrestler, she is an outstanding athlete and fully competent wrestler who probably deserved more time as a star given how thin the division was for most of her run. With Charlotte, Sasha Banks, and company at the fore now, Fox has settled into her ideal role as a well-known, talented veteran who can be used to effectively put over fresher stars.
210. Evan Bourne
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Bourne was a one-time Tag Team Champion in WWE.
Best moment: Bourne pinned Sheamus to win a tag match over Sheamus and Chris Jericho in a Raw main event. His partner was John Cena and, for one night, Bourne felt like a main event-level star in his own right.
Rationale: If ever there were a guy who showed up in WWE in the wrong era, it was Evan Bourne a supremely gifted but relatively small young man who was particularly good with his aerial assault featuring a swank Shooting Star Press. For a good three and a half years, Bourne played a loveable underdog, but outside of a handful of special moments, never looked like he’d really break through and never got a singles championship opportunity the way he surely would have if there were a Cruiserweight or Light Heavyweight Championship around at any point in his tenure. As it stood, Bourne seemed to be finding his footing in a resurgent tag division, paired with Kofi Kingston to form fan-friendly Air Boom. Wellness suspensions and injuries caught up to Bourne, though, and put a premature, anticlimactic end to his WWE tenure.
209. Heath Slater
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Slater is a four-time tag champ in WWE.
Best moment: Teaming up with Rhyno, Slater defeated The Usos to win the tournament to crown SmackDown Tag Team Champions after the second brand split, paying off a feel-good comedy story, and shoring up his place on the main roster.
Rationale: Slater has one of the weirdest career trajectories of any WWE performer ever. He went from being introduced as an earnest underdog face on the nationally broadcast NXT, to being a main event player with the heel Nexus stable, to largely getting lost in the tag team shuffle, to playing a comedic heel, to playing a largely comedic face.
It’s when Slater found comedy — as a guy who jobbed to one-off returning legends, then the leader of the largely farcical 3MB and Social Outcasts, followed by his loveable run as a white trash face — that he found his niche as a key cog in the current WWE machine. No, Slater’s not likely to ever contend for a world title, but he can thrive as a face or heel in the tag ranks, and vying for mid-card championships, and should have a spot with WWE for years to come.
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Carlito was a one-time Intercontinental Champion, one-time United States Champion, and two-time tag champ in WWE.
Best moment: Carlito debuted on the main roster by beating John Cena for the US title.
Rationale: Carlito rode a rollercoaster of ups and downs over the course of his WWE tenure, booked like a world beater in winning each of his singles titles on his debut on a brand, beating established stars, seemingly riding high in tag teams with fellow budding heel Chris Masters, legend Ric Flair, and finally his brother Primo. Yet for each of these highs, Carlito would slip down the card, losing just about any feud that mattered in the long-run, and despite getting individual big wins, never breaking the mid-card glass ceiling.
The main knocks on Carlito were that he was purportedly lazy and a bit of a loose cannon, and thus it was hard for management to fully get behind the son of legendary Carlos Colon. When he was at his best, though, working heel and brashly spitting chunks of apple into the faces of his rivals, he demonstrated a world of potential.
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Tajiri is a one-time United States Champion, three-time Cruiserweight Champion, one-time Light Heavyweight Champion, and two-time tag champ in WWE.
Best moment: After appearing to join The Alliance, Tajiri attacked former ally William Regal to reveal he was still on the WWF’s side in the InVasion angle, to a huge pop from the crowd.
Rationale: Small in stature and hailing from Japan, there was every risk Tajiri would get saddled with a stereotypical heel foreigner gimmick. While WWE did walk the line occasionally with Tajiri’s primary personality trait being the fact that he was Japanese, he nonetheless fared well on account of his innovative and sharp offense, weaving together martial arts strikes, aerial maneuvers, and painful looking holds like the Tarantula to make a name for himself.
As a sub-plot of Tajiri’s success, he benefited from a memorable ongoing relationship with William Regal as the two were mostly cast as friends, but also occasionally as rivals. The pair of top-shelf workers complemented each other nicely in the ring and their divergent personalities made them a successful odd couple from a storytelling perspective.
206. Luke Gallows
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Gallows is a one-time Raw Tag Team Champion.
Best moment: Gallows returned to WWE, teamed with Karl Anderson, to wreak havoc on Monday Night Raw, positively destroying The Usos.
Rationale: Gallows follows in a long tradition of big men who went off to Japan, toughened up, tightened their work, and bettered their prospects stateside. He was reasonably successful first as Festus — an oversized farm boy inspired to violence whenever he heard a ring bell, and then as one of CM Punk’s sidekicks in the Straight Edge Society. But returned from Japan, Gallows looked like a killer, and rose to tag prominence with Anderson.
While WWE’s handling of Gallows remains a little shaky, and I’d argue the company still isn’t treating him seriously enough — subjecting him to comedy bits and jobbing quickly to Roman Reigns — he’s nonetheless shown progress both in his actual ability and how WWE treats him, and may well be in for a singles push before long.
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Raven was a twenty-seven-time Hardcore Champion.
Best moment: Raven defeated Steve Blackman in late 2000 to win his first Hardcore Championship.
Rationale: It’s a shame that I couldn’t justify ranking Raven higher. He’s, by all accounts, a great wrestling mind, a rock solid worker, and very arguably one of the best characters of his generation. But while he was great in ECW, very good in WCW, and very good in ROH in a veteran’s role, well past his prime, he never quite clicked in the WWF. In his first run, he played the largely comedic Johnny Polo who was mostly a manager and sometimes-announcer. In his second run, in the Raven gimmick, the company never really got behind him beyond being a featured player in the Hardcore division. Just when it looked as though he might get a chance to do something darker and more decidedly him toward the end of his run with a seven deadly sins inspired gimmick that was featured on Sunday Night Heat, the company gave up on him again.
Raven’s best remembered as dark, violent, and collecting likeminded souls to his Flock. He never rarely had the opportunity to be more than a generic hardcore guy in the WWF.
204. Santino Marella
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Marella was a two-time Intercontinental Champion, one-time US Champion, one-time Tag Team Champion, and *sigh* Miss WrestleMania in 2009.
Best moment: Marella reappeared, an afterthought, in the final stages of Royal Rumble 2010, and looked as though he might steal the whole Rumble and throw WWE into complete disarray, before Alberto Del Rio got the better of him at the end of the match.
Rationale: Opinions vary pretty widely on Marella. You can argue he was a terrific throwback as a comedic wrestler — one of the few acts of his kind with any kind of longevity, and particularly given that he thrived as both a face and a heel in his main roster run. On the other hand, you can read Marella as emblematic of the watered down, kid-centric booking WWE favored during most of his era. Marella — more so the character than the man — is the kind of talent who probably wouldn’t have had much luck winning even one singles title during a lot of other eras, but was one of the most memorable title holders — particularly with the Intercontinental Championship — during his active period.
I actually have nothing against Marella himself — a solid worker who wove comedy into his act pretty seamlessly. I was never a fan of the gimmick, though. While I appreciated a handful of his moments, like when he looked as though he might steal the Royal Rumble win in 2010, overall, I was underwhelmed with his silly gimmick, and particularly annoyed with the degree to which his involvement turned the WrestleMania 25 women’s battle royal into a complete farce.
203. Gregory Helms
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Helms was a two-time Cruiserweight Champion, one-time European Champion, one-time Hardcore Champion, and Tag Team Champion in WWE.
Best moment: Helms scored the unlikely roll-up upset pin over The Rock, when The Rock was still more or less at the height of his powers and kayfabe credibility.
Rationale: When we think of the WWE-ification of a wrestler, there’s an implication of simplification and cartoonization. WWE, relative to the indies or old school competitors like the AWA, WCCW, Jim Crockett Promotions, or even ECW, errs towards sillier characters and emphasis on personality over more serious portrayals of wrestling as a sport, or blood feuds. Critics of WWE tend to think of this effect in pejorative terms, but I’d argue Gregory Helms — as The Hurricane — is a shining example of when the WWE-ification worked.
Helms was a decorated, and clearly talented cruiserweight in the dying days of WCW, but WWE quickly took his Hurricane nickname to extremes, repackaging him as a self-deluded super hero. The gimmick may have undercut Helms’s credibility a bit, but it also gave him a distinctive identity that made him a memorable character on the WWE landscape, and ultimately helped the small man beat the odds, lasting in WWE for the better part of a decade much longer than most of his fellow WCW imports.
The character was goofy, but fun, and Helms continued to thrive as an in-ring performer, leading up to a brief spell when he dropped the hero gimmick in favor of a no-nonsense heel persona. While Helms never became a main eventer, he was a success story as a mid-carder with staying power.
202. Muhammad Hassan
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Hassan was knocking on the door of the main event, feuding with The Undertaker, when WWE pulled the plug on his gimmick.
Best moment: Hassan stormed the ring at WrestleMania 21 to attack Eugene out of spite for getting left off the WrestleMania card. The conflict gave way to Hassan duking it out with Hulk Hogan on the grandest stage of them all.
Rationale: Hassan has always fascinated me as a professional wrestler who played his character so well that it led to the end of his career. The gimmick was that of a frustrated Arab-American, who was angry at America for targeting him. The character walked a line, becoming increasingly indignant and heelish in response to feeling more and more wronged. He ascended the card and looked bound to challenge for the world championship before the character crossed a line, booked to have masked men — who may or may not have been cast to suggest they were terrorists — help him choke out The Undertaker. The incident was quite arguably in bad taste, but also happened to air (pre-taped) immediately after the 2005 London bombings, which sent the network and advertisers into a tizzy. The upshot: Hassan was left off TV, squashed and destroyed by The Undertaker on PPV and never heard from again.
The entire story is particularly sad for Hassan actually retiring from wrestling after this mess. It’s a shame for a solid young wrestler with particularly strong talking skills, who had the push of a lifetime cut short through no fault of his own. All the more odd — Hassan became the most recognizable Arab-American character in WWE, despite actually being of Italian descent.
201. The Great Khali
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Khali was a one-time World Heavyweight Champion.
Best moment: Khali won a battle royal on SmackDown to win the vacated World Heavyweight Championship.
Rationale: Khali is, in many ways, an anachronistic monster. He’s a jacked, legit seven-footer. Were he to have worked alongside a WWF landscape that included Andre the Giant, Big John Studd, Akeem, and Kamala he might have fit in as another guy who could draw based on his sheer look, and successfully put over Hulk Hogan as a conquering hero. When he did come to WWE in the mid 2000s, though, fans had already adjusted to expect more in the way of work rate than the old giants of yore ever had to give them.
No doubt Khali deserves a spot in this countdown. Unlike monstrous Zeus, Khali could work a match — never a great wrestler, but not all show. Moreover, in kayfabe terms, he did win a world title and owns a clean win over The Undertaker. Just the same, Khali was a contemporary puzzle in that he was too imposing a physical presence not to do something important with him, but just the same not good enough to really justify a long-term main event run.
I’ll accept arguments Khali should rank higher based on his kayfabe success. I can’t in good conscience rank a world champion (from WWE) any lower.
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Ax was a three-time Tag Team Champion in the WWF.
Best moment: With partner Smash, as Demolition, Ax won his first tag gold by taking apart Strike Force. They’d go on to hold onto the titles for well over a year in a run that set the WWE record until The New Day bested it over twenty-five years later.
Rationale: Ax was the veteran of the Demolition tag team, twelve years Smash’s senior. For the purposes of this countdown’s timeframe, that puts a limit on him, as he was too late in his career to do much in the WWF post-Demolition (or even properly finish the Demolition run, as Crush largely replaced him in the team’s final stretch).
Regardless, Demolition was a great tag team — constructed as something of a Road Warriors knock off, but the big guys in face paint wound up quite arguably the better in-ring team than the originals. They’d hold tag gold, and ultimately thrive both as heels and as faces for an over four-year run, with Ax as the more experienced foundation for the team.
199. D-Von Dudley
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Dudley is a ten-time tag champ in WWE.
Best moment: Amidst a flurry of guys diving off ladders and through tables, the Dudleys coexisted as solid bases for frenetic three- and four-way battles involving The Hardy Boyz and Edge and Christian.
Rationale: The Dudleys are both one of the most decorated and one of the flat-out best tag teams in wrestling history and make a very viable claim to being one of the best teams ever in the world, given their extensive travel and promotion hopping within the US. Though Bubba Ray stands out as the better talker, D-Von makes a strong case for himself as a rock solid worker who aged well and continued as a rock solid tag guy throughout the Dudleys’ first tenure, and hardly seemed to have missed a beat when they returned for a 2015–2016 run.
D-Von’s one shot as a singles performer in 2002, unfortunately, did more to underscore his limitations than to show what more he was capable of. Nonetheless he goes down in WWE history as a very, very good tag team wrestler.
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Ivory was a three-time Women’s Champion in the WWF.
Best moment: As reigning Women’s Champion, Ivory fended off Tori in a Hardcore Match. While the props were surely gimmicked, the imagery was brutal, including Ivory smashing a mirror over her opponent’s head for the win, and subsequently burning her with an iron.
Rationale: In the early Attitude Era, the WWF was all about sleaze over substance in its women’s division. Ivory was one of the few purist, fully trained wrestlers of the group and thrived as a foundation for the division before the likes of Trish Stratus and Lita were ready to take over, and had an encore as the female representative of Right To Censor. The latter run included a memorable feud with Chyna.
While Ivory didn’t get to have many great matches in the WWF, that’s largely attributable to her dance partners and she remains an under-celebrated talent for the division in that era.
197. Hillbilly Jim
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Jim was an iconic figure around the original WrestleMania and years to immediately follow — a consistent good guy and impressively big man who occasionally teamed up in the main event or upper card.
Best moment: Jim was on the winning team of a memorable, if not objectively great six-man tag match at WrestleMania 3, in which he, Little Beaver, and The Haiti Kid defeated King Kong Bundy and his crew by DQ.
Rationale: While Jim may have gotten by on his size and charisma alone, it’s hard to knock it when he became as famous as he did, playing a silly farmer gimmick when the WWF was at its most cartoonish. At 6’7” and 300 pounds, Jim was an imposing presence who got into his character with reckless abandon, including ludicrous skits. While he never won a title in the WWF and doesn’t have any classic matches to look back on, he remains a feel-good icon of his time.
196. Hercules Hernandez
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Hernandez appeared in multiple WrestleMania one-on-one bouts, up against Billy Jack Haynes, The Ultimate Warrior, Haku, and Earthquake.
Best moment: Although the match was officially a no-contest, Hercules got the better of Billy Jack Haynes at WrestleMania, bloodying him with his chain.
Rationale: Despite his (no pun intended) Herculean physique that was perfect for its time, Hercules never broke through to being more than a supporting player and jobber to the stars. He put over a number of top-tier faces, though and to a lesser extent up and coming heels toward the tail end of his five-year tenure with the WWF. His run teaming with Paul Roma may have been most emblematic of his efforts — great on paper, reasonably impressive to look at, but neither man ultimately went anywhere in his WWF career.
195. Adrian Adonis
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Adonis was briefly a challenger for Hulk Hogan’s world title on the house show circuit, and went up against Roddy Piper in what was billed as Piper’s retirement match at WrestleMania 3. (His lone title reign in the WWF — winning the tag titles with Dick Murdoch — came pre-WrestleMania 1.)
Best moment: Adonis pulled off a pretty gnarly assault on Piper on the set of Piper’s Pit to build heat for their WrestleMania 3 showdown.
Rationale: There’s been a lot of talk over the years about WWE wanting its stars to have a particular kind of look — athletic, muscular, imposing — and it’s with consideration to that dynamic that I particularly appreciate Adonis. He was part of the pre-WrestleMania generation, for which look mattered a lot less than ability to generate heat and work a match. Adonis was excellent in the role of flamboyant upper mid-card heel. For the purposes of this countdown, he only had two years to make his case and wasn’t in the limelight for either, and so he lands here on the list.
194. Brutus Beefcake
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Beefcake was a one-time Tag Team Champion.
Best moment: After more tentatively turning face earlier in the show, Beefcake returned to the ring at WrestleMania 3 to help Roddy Piper opposite Adrian Adonis.
Rationale: Beefcake was never a particularly great worker and there will always be arguments he got as far as he did on account of his personal friendship with Hulk Hogan. Just the same, after nearly a decade in the WWF mid-card and tag scene, he’s certainly worthy of some recognition. Beefcake’s Barber gimmick and hedge clipper accessory were iconic in their time and, for his spot in the card, he did well as both a smarmy heel and garnering sympathy as a face.
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Animal is a three-time tag champ in WWE.
Best moment: At SummerSlam 1991, Animal and Hawk crushed The Nasty Boys to win the tag tiles, picking up one of the few, and certainly the biggest elusive championship of their decorated career.
Rationale: While The Legion of Doom was quite arguably at their best in other promotions, they nonetheless added to their legacy in WWE, first with a dominant run in the early 1990s, then reappearing to put over The New Age Outlaws and get more into their character work during the Attitude Era. While I rate Hawk as the better all-around member of the team, Animal was the stronger of the two and deserves some extra credit for making the LOD gimmick work to the extent it did years after Hawk’s passing, teamed with Heidenreich.
192. Ahmed Johnson
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Johnson was a one-time Intercontinental Champion and also won the Kuwait Cup tournament.
Best moment: At King of the Ring 1996, Johnson pinned Goldust to not only win the IC title but become the first African-American to win a singles title in the WWF.
Rationale: In 1995, Johnson exploded onto the scene in the WWF, a super powerful badass who crushed all of his opponents and turned heads when he body slammed Yokozuna en route to an Intercontinental Championship run. Things took a turn upon the arrival of Faarooq. Between running into injuries and getting stuck in the quagmire of feuding against then joining the ranks of The Nation of Domination.
Whether injuries, Johnson’s attitude, or political issues with The Kliq are to blame, Johnson’s momentum ceased and he never accomplished much of a note from there, only to move on to a forgettable run with WCW.
191. Dean Douglas
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Douglas was an Intercontinental Champion.
Best moment: Douglas was awarded the Intercontinental Championship when reigning champ Shawn Michaels couldn’t defend it, and accepted the honor in nicely dickish fashion to reinforce his heel persona.
Rationale: After a brief, forgettable run as a mid-card face, Douglas returned to the WWF as Dean Douglas, a heel teacher gimmick, and set to grading his peers (spoiler alert — a lot of them got Fs). On the second run through, Douglas had solid experience with WCW and the fledgling ECW behind him. He’d become a top-tier talker and an excellent worker in the interim, only to get saddled with a mid-card character that had a serious glass ceiling over it.
Douglas didn’t hang around long enough to supersede his gimmick, but remains a very solid mid-card act from the tail end of the occupational gimmick heavy pre-Attitude period in WWF programming.
190. Braun Strowman
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Strowman has won numerous PPV matches and a Raw main event.
Best moment: Strowman defeated The Big Show in oddly outstanding hoss battle in the main event of Raw.
Rationale: Strowman initially looked like he might be a forgettable monster — a guy with an impressive size and look who couldn’t work or talk for himself. His early work with The Wyatt Family did little to assuage those concerns, but particularly in recent months, he’s come into his own as an entertaining squash machine, who has also held up his end of things in bouts with The Big Show, Roman Reigns, and Sami Zayn.
If Strowman keeps his current pace for years ahead he could move way up this countdown. For now, I feel the jury’s still out, and he still needs to develop in his in-ring work or promos to fully realize his considerable potential.
189. Diamond Dallas Page
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Page was a one-time European and one time Tag Team Champion.
Best moment: DDP successfully defended his European Championship against Christian at WrestleMania 18.
Rationale: No two ways about it, Page was a WCW guy and has even gone so far as to admit that he went to WWE largely because he wanted to work a WrestleMania. True to form, after WCW closed, Page didn’t let his contract run out, but rather worked with WWF for just about one year. There’s a strong argument to be made that Page was misused, particularly on the front end of his WWF run. Rather than cashing in the charisma that had made him a marquee player in WCW, he was plugged into a generic stalker gimmick opposite The Undertaker through which he repeatedly got his ass handed to him. As a face, he got to be more unique, and more true to himself, but was also more clearly defined as a mid-card talent.
For his limited time, questionable booking, and advanced age, Page nonetheless got to show glimmers of what he was capable of in his motivational-speaking optimist gimmick. He did his best, and his remained a popular legend when it comes to cameo appearances in the years to follow.
188. Gail Kim
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Kim was a one-time Women’s Champion in WWE.
Best moment: Upon returning to from injury during her first stint in 2004, Kim promptly submitted reigning Women’s Champion Victoria on Raw to establish herself as a title contender and drive home her identity as a submission specialist.
Rationale: For quite some time there was a largely an unspoken truth that stars who went from serious wrestling careers elsewhere to working for WWE were trading their craftsmanship for a big payday and greater notoriety. Few talents before her were as explicit about this interest as Kim, who noted in interviews that she was not happy creatively working with WWE, but went there for the money.
This explains Kim’s two distinct WWE runs, the first time a more fully realized tenure in which she started out a face and found her footing as heel submission artist. In the years in between, Kim had a great run with TNA, particularly playing a valiant face foil to monster heel Awesome Kong. She came back to WWE for an utterly forgettable two-year face run, highlighted by the storyline that she was dating Daniel Bryan (which mostly amounted to a punchline, because the Bellas were trying to seduce him, but he already had a girlfriend).
Kim has claimed she was held back in WWE, and the criticism seems fair. As a grappler and aerial artist in the ring, she proved in her first WWE run and her TNA work that she could thrive as a face or heel, but had limited opportunities to shine over her time in WWE.
187. Brie Bella
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Bella was a one-time Divas Champion.
Best moment: After storyline quitting WWE in retaliation for The Authority’s injustices, Bella returned to get the better of Stephanie McMahon, goading her into a match at SummerSlam 2014.
Rationale: When Bella started out with WWE, she looked to be just another pretty face, before getting the added intrigue of having her twin sister Nikki help her out, working twin magic for which the two would trade places during matches to steal victories. After the novelty wore off, the Bellas were just another two female stars, just another two pretty faces. When they left and came back to head up the division, including getting featured on Total Divas the effect seemed to worsen, with the two more heavily featured in an even less wrestling-intensive division.
Interestingly, though, the two did show progress as wrestlers, particularly after Brie’s alarmingly good summer 2014 feud with Stephanie McMahon, and after Nikki’s heel turn and run as Divas Champion. Nikki emerged as the better of the two in the ring — both in actuality and in storyline, but Brie held her own, honing a more technical and more realistic style, besides borrowing from her partner Daniel Bryan’s playbook to finish out her career at her best.
186. Koko B Ware
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Ware managed to last on the WWE main roster for nearly a decade.
Best moment: Ware popped the live crowd of 93,000-plus at the Pontiac Silverdome for WrestleMania 3 with his energetic entrance for his match against Butch Reed.
Rationale: Despite his perpetual status as a lower-mid-card guy, Ware was nonetheless an iconic figure from a golden era in WWF programming, during the original Hulkamania run. With his infectious positive attitude, high-flying move set, and mascot Frankie on his arm, he was a crowd favorite and got the fans to overlook the fact that he rarely won matches over anyone but enhancement talent.
Toward the end of his run, he’d get put to some of his best use, teaming with young Owen Hart as High Energy — an exciting team that still rarely won, but pleased the crowd and was a step toward Hart finding his footing as an eventual singles star.
185. Jim Neidhart
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Neidhart was a two-time Tag Team Champion.
Best moment: Neidhart became a major figure of intrigue amidst the rivalry between Bret and Owen Hart when he returned to the WWF and became a key figure in the King of the Ring 1994 PPV, ensuring Bret retained his world title before turning full heel to back Owen in his bid to win the tournament and shore up his spot as number one contender.
Rationale: There are two traditional paradigms for world-class tag teams. There are pairings like The Road Warriors and The Rockers made up of two performers with similar styles and personas. Then there are teams made up of complementary members Kofi Kingston and Big E in The New Day or the team of Owen Hart and Yokozuna. These teams feature players with distinctive talents that enhance one another. Neidhart’s Hart Foundation team with Bret Hart was a quintessential example of the latter dynamic. Hart, even in his earliest days with the WWF, was a top-tier technician, who was small by WWF standards of the day and didn’t yet know how to show much personality. Neidhart was a powerhouse with the gift for gab. Together, they formed one of the most iconic tag teams in WWF history.
Neidhart shored up his place as a rock solid role player over the decade to follow, playing Owen Hart’s sidekick and later an important cog in the Hart Foundation stable as an intimidating physical presence, a well-known face, and a guy who didn’t need to be protected when it came to absorbing losses on the part of the group.
184. Tyson Kidd
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Kidd is a three-time tag champ in WWE.
Best moment: Kidd and partner DH Smith, as the Hart Dynasty, defeated The Miz and Big show to win the Unified Tag Team Championship.
Rationale: Kidd is a special talent who got explosively over as TJ Wilson on the indy circuit, only to suffer from stop-start pushes and injuries in WWE. While he’s undeniably gifted from athletic and technical standpoints, his less stellar mic skills and small stature held him back for much of his WWE tenure, jobbing out in the singles ranks, only to enjoy uneven success as a tag guy. After suffering a severe neck and spine injury the summer of 2015, Kidd looks to be retired for good now — particularly unfortunate timing given his team with Cesaro looked like it might become something special before he was sidelined.
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Test won Intercontinental and European Championships. He was also a two-time tag champ and two-time Hardcore Champion.
Best moment: Test won an alarmingly epic mid-card bout opposite Shane McMahon to earn Shane-O-Mac’s blessing in pursuing a relationship with Stephanie McMahon at SummerSlam 1999.
Rationale: Test had a great look and good athleticism. He looked poised to be a major star for WWE, woven into a storyline relationship with Stephanie McMahon and by extension the whole McMahon family. The Stephanie pairing seemed like a step forward, as did winning the Immunity Battle Royal at the end of the InVasion angle, as did the character reboot with Test managed by Stacey Keibler. Things never quite came together for the big man, though, until he wound up precisely the lumbering big man it had looked he would rise above.
Unfortunately, Test peaked as a mid-card up-and-comer, and it’s unfortunate that he passed before he had the opportunity to make a comeback.
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Akeem feuded with Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage in the main event picture.
Best moment: Akeem appeared on the Arsenio Hall Show, alongside The Big Boss Man and Slick to promote them challenging Demolition for the tag titles.
Rationale: Akeem — earlier known as The One Man Gang — could get dismissed as a four-hundred plus pounder there for Hulk Hogan to topple in the original Hulkamania run, but deserves additional credit for not just being a massive physical specimen, but for being fast, agile, and a solid worker for a man his size. While the choice to transform into “The African Dream” may have been in poor taste, both from the perspective of good taste and for his credibility as a wrestling villain, he nonetheless offered a spectacle teaming with fellow big man The Big Boss Man, and their tandem was not only physically intimidating but entertaining workers to go opposite The Mega Powers en route to WrestleMania 5.
181. Michelle McCool
Top kayfabe accomplishments: McCool was a two-time Divas Champion and two-time Women’s Champion.
Best moment: McCool defeated Melina at Night of Champions 2010 to unify the Divas and Women’s Championships.
Rationale: McCool was a solid performer for WWE — a natural athlete who improved as an in-ring worker over the course of her five years with the company and developed her wrestling persona nicely as she grew into her heel role and working with Layla as LayCool. Sure, the mini-faction had its missteps like the poor-taste Piggie James angle, but on the whole, the duo succeeded as arrogant heels.
It would be interesting to see how McCool might have done if pushed with the addition of serious performers like the women’s division has to day. I suspect she may well have risen to the challenge and been an even better performer. As it stands, she remains one of the better talents from a lackluster period for women’s wrestling in WWE, though she’s better remembered as The Undertaker’s real-life wife.
180. Jillian Hall
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Hall was a one-time Divas Champion in WWE.
Best moment: In fall 2009, Hall finally won her lone title in WWE, pinning Mickie James on Raw (a moment that descended into disappointment when she dropped the title to Melina only minutes later, but nonetheless, a good moment for an underrated heel performer).
Rationale: After launching her WWE career with the silly gimmick of playing JBL’s manager who had a big mole on her face (until The Boogeyman ate it off), Hall transitioned into her own wrestling career. After a brief period on SmackDown, she settled into her wrestling gimmick on Raw — a rock solid mechanic (especially by the standards of her day) who wholeheartedly embraced a silly gimmick as the singing Diva who didn’t realize that she was actually really bad at singing. She made the most of the gimmick for three years, and remained a regular presence on WWE programming at the time.
179. Kenzo Suzuki
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Suzuki was a one-time WWE Tag Team Champion (with Rene Dupree).
Best moment: Suzuki challenged John Cena to a battle rap while they feuded for the US Championship. As one might expect, it didn’t go well for the Japanese star. Some might call it an embarrassing moment in an embarrassing gimmick for a Japanese talent who hadn’t mastered English, but I’m giving it credit for Suzuki embracing the WWE style and making a memorable moment outside his natural skillset and comfort zone.
Rationale: Purportedly, WWE brought in Suzuki with intentions of making him a serious heel foreigner on Raw, before switching directions and making him a more light-hearted heel character on SmackDown. The guy’s combination of razor sharp in ring skills and willingness to excitedly play the butt of the joke made him a short-term success in WWE. It would have been interesting to see how far he might have gone had his WWE career not wrapped up inside a year, but as it stands, he was a solid talent for WWE while he lasted.
Top kayfabe accomplishments: As of this writing, Bayley is the current reigning Raw Women’s Champion.
Best moment: Bayley made a surprise appearance, in advance of her proper advancement to the main roster, as Sasha Banks’s surprise tag team partner to defeat Charlotte and Dana Brooke in the opening match at Battleground 2016. She quite arguably got one of the biggest reactions of any NXT talent to ever debut on the main roster.
Rationale: It’s difficult to separate Bayley’s sublime work on NXT from her main roster run given her time spent and level of accomplishment in developmental. With only about half a year under her belt on the main roster, she hasn’t had the chance to accomplish a ton yet — just one poorly booked Raw Women’s Championship run in which she’s been portrayed as less than a great champion. Bayley has, nonetheless, performed gamely opposite Charlotte, Nia Jax, and Dana Brooke, beginning to prove herself as an upper-tier addition to the women’s roster already with the potential to accomplish a lot more in the years ahead as a natural face, a character who connects with the crowd brilliantly, and an excellent in-ring worker just waiting on the right opportunity.
177. Billy Kidman
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Kidman was a four-time Cruiserweight Champion and one-time Tag Team Champion in WWE.
Best moment: At the InVasion PPV, Kidman was the reigning WCW Cruiserweight Champion and defeated the WWF’s reigning Light Heavyweight Champion, X-Pac.
Rationale: Kidman was a fresh face out of WCW with a lot of athletic ability. His WWE run may have benefited most of all from a well-timed injury, as he was out of action for most of The InVasion and thus returned, undamaged by his early Alliance membership.
Though Kidman never quite escaped the Cruiserweight box, he was a featured player in the division and briefly in the tag ranks before injuries and purported political differences with management cut off his tenure with the company at four years. Thus Kidman’s WWE work, and all the more so his WCW run that preceded it, leaves him largely frozen in time as a high-flying hot prospect who never quite realized his considerable potential.
176. Lance Storm
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Storm was an Intercontinental Champoin and four-time Tag Team Champion.
Best moment: As part of The Un-Americans, Storm teamed with Christian to defeat Hulk Hogan and Edge to win the tag titles.
Rationale: Storm is an all-time great in-ring worker, but unfortunately his limited charisma and relatively short tenure kept him from really thriving as a WWE star. Nonetheless, he quietly built a respectable mid-card resume with The Alliance and then The Un-Americans.
It’s unfortunate that the reality-bending angle of Steve Austin criticizing storm and encouraging fans to chant boring during his matches probably cost Storm what credibility had left toward the end of his time with the promotion, and he’d never be taken as seriously as he was in his prime, as one of the brightest homegrown talents of WCW.
175. Nikki Bella
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Bella is a two-time Divas Champion who holds the record for the longest reigning Divas Champion.
Best moment: Bella decked her sister at the climax of a super high profile showdown between her and Stephanie McMahon at SummerSlam 2014 to launch the heel character that would ultimately lead her to the greatest success of her career.
Rationale: For quite some time, Bella was the epitome of what fans didn’t like about women’s wrestling in WWE. She was a beautiful woman with limited in-ring talent who tended toward grating on promos. Worse yet, she dominated TV time over talents hardcore fans preferred, and her booking seemed largely in service to the Total Divas reality show for which she played a prominent role.
Strangely enough, though, the narrative shifted as Bella grew into being a very solid hand in the ring. Credit her degree of experience, credit tips from long-term partner John Cena. Whatever the case may be, Bella went from someone booked as top-tier women’s star to someone who actually did quietly become one of the best talents the division had to offer by the end of her record-setting title reign, and all the mores so after she returned from neck surgery. She’s that rare performer who has arguably moved past her physical prime only to enter into her prime as a worker, as demonstrated by strong recent work carrying Carmella to a reasonable rivalry and more than holding her own opposite Natalya.
174. Beth Phoenix
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Phoenix is a four-time champ in the women’s ranks and one of only three women to perform in the Royal Rumble.
Best moment: At One Night Stand 2008, Phoenix dominated Melina, including bending her leg far enough to make her kick herself in her own head to secure the submission victory.
Rationale: Beth Phoenix is one of a generation of female stars who stand out for being quite good in the ring (not to mention an impressive athlete for her sheer power) who showed up at the wrong time, such that she spent most of her career in matches that lasted all of five minutes, and typically carrying unpolished peers to passable bouts rather than putting on the classics she may well have been capable with better dance partners.
Despite not getting to realize her full potential, Phoenix had her moments, particularly as a dominating heel. Her size and power also allowed her to mix it up with the guys including a memorable (though uneven) angle with Santino, and eliminating The Great Khali from the 2010 Royal Rumble.
173. Baron Corbin
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Corbin won the third Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal.
Best moment: Corbin debuted on the main roster as a surprise entrant in the aforementioned AtGM Battle Royal and won decisively to immediately assert himself as an upper-mid-card player.
Rationale: After a big debut that many questioned if he really deserved, Corbin has made major strides on the main roster, developing into a deceptively sleek worker, and a believable big heel who comes across as arrogant and mean in the best ways possible. While he’s still too early in his career to really fairly evaluate him, if his first year on the main roster — which included getting the better of rivalries with Dolph Ziggler and Kallisto and hovering on the outskirts of his brand’s main event scene — is any indication, he could easily jump up fifty-some-odd places on this countdown before too long.
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Tatanka went undefeated for two and a half years upon his debut.
Best moment: Tatanka held his own nicely challenging Shawn Michaels for the Intercontinental Championship in the opener and arguably the best match of WrestleMania 9.
Rationale: Tatanka got a red-hot start in the WWF as a face who bolted toward the front of the mid-card off of an impressive undefeated streak in which he plowed through jobbers and eventually mid-card heels like Rick Martel, and won one big televised battle royal. The character lost some of its focus and clarity of identity when he turned heel and joined The Million Dollar Corporation.
So, Tatanka’s one of those fun acts that’s trapped in time for demonstrating so much potential early on and looking like he might be a big deal only to run his course in the mid-card, collecting no gold along the way, and quietly fade away. The Native American star did have an additional fun nostalgia run in him from 2005 to 2007, but it was clear that he was there for name value and to put over younger talents at that point.
171. Stevie Richards
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Richards won the Hardcore Championship twenty-one times.
Best moment: Richards and his Right To Censor running buddies picked up a big win in a six-man tag at SummerSlam 2000 over Rikishi and Too Cool.
Rationale: Richards spent nearly a decade with WWE, playing a variety of roles, ranging from a hardcore fixture to partnering with Victoria, to reviving some of his ECW persona in WWE’s ECW relaunch. For me, and many fans, I’ll best remember him as the leader of Right To Censor, mid-card group that drew serious heat as the killjoys of the Attitude Era.
RTC highlighted Richards, as good as he’d be in WWE, never a kayfabe star, but a committed character and skilled worker who was excellent as the mouthpiece and leader for a unique stable.
170. Crash Holly
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Holly was a one-time European, Light Heavyweight, and Tag Team Champion, in addition to no fewer than twenty-two runs as the Hardcore Champ.
Best moment: Holly defeated William Regal for an upset win of the European Championship at the Rebellion 2000 show — a UK-exclusive PPV.
Rationale: Holly’s an unlikely hero of WWE lore — a diminutive guy you had to expect would never rise above the lower mid-card only to get introduced as the cousin of Hardcore Holly for a very entertaining mid-card comedy act, before morphing into The Houdini of Hardcore under whose reign the Hardcore Championship was up for grabs 24/7, leading to a variety of entertaining ongoing scenarios in which the title would change hands multiple time s in a night, more often than culminating with the title falling back into Crash’s hands.
And that’s not to say that Holly was all gimmick. Beneath the character was a talented, hungry young worker who got the gimmick over as much as the gimmick helped him to arrive as an unlikely success story.
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Paige is a two-time Divas Champion.
Best moment: Paige debuted on the main roster the night after WreslteMania 30 and promptly defeated AJ Lee to win the Divas Championship in her first appearance on Raw.
Rationale: While Charlotte, Sasha Banks, Becky Lynch, and Bayley tend to get the credit for reinventing women’s wrestling in WWE, Paige was among the standouts before them who demonstrated that women could be serious wrestlers within the paradigm of WWE programming. Unfortunately, she ran into a combination of injuries, Wellness Policy suspensions, and overarching political issues with the powers that be in WWE before she could be a more meaningful part of the revamped division.
Just the same, Paige made a good accounting of herself, particularly in her work at the dawn of NXT to lay a path for the next generation of stars, her early work opposite AJ Lee. With The Rock producing a biopic on her that WWE has collaborated on, perhaps there’s still hope of her accomplishing something when she comes back from injury.
167 and 168. Jimmy and Jey Uso
Top kayfabe accomplishments: The Usos are two times Tag Team Champions.
Best moment: The Usos defeated The New Age Outlaws to win their first titles in WWE on an episode of Raw.
Rationale: While I’d like to rank the Usos individually, their identities have been so intertwined in WWE programming that it’s nearly impossible to separate them (to the point that when Jey was injured in 2015, Jimmy missed half the year alongside him, only appearing sporadically on his own). Moreover, the two both represent similar abilities as performers who have thrived as faces (particularly in their late 2013 to early 2015 run) and reinvented themselves nicely as heels upon getting drafted to the SmackDown brand in the 2016 brand split.
166. Xavier Woods
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Woods is a two-time Tag Team Champion.
Best moment: In the early stages of The New Day’s rivalry with The League of Nations, Woods played Rusev’s theme song on his trombone to terrific comedic effect.
Rationale: When Xavier Woods, Kofi Kingston, and Big E came together as The New Day, it was unclear what their identity would be. It felt as though it might be as simple as WWE plugging two black mid-carders who’d never quite broken through with another black mid-carder who hadn’t really had any time at all to break out. Little could we have known that these three performers would gel and thrive with the opportunity to show off their personalities and get a serious push behind their athletic gifts. Kingston and Big E got the opportunities they had deserved, and Woods was the unlikely glue. He was the most skilled talker of the bunch whose infectious personality may have been the single most important ingredient in getting the group over, besides which he keenly played the weak link — a victim for opponents to target and for his teammates to avenge. While that role, and not having accomplished much in kayfabe outside the team keep him from landing higher in this countdown, Woods remains a deceptively successful WWE Superstar from recent years.
Top kayfabe accomplishments: As one half of the Legion of Doom, Hawk won two Tag Team Championships.
Best moment: At SummerSlam 1991, Animal and Hawk crushed The Nasty Boys to win the tag tiles, picking up one of the few, and certainly the biggest remaining championship of their decorated career.
Rationale: The LOD were one of the most dominant tag teams in wrestling history. While the guys were a bit past their prime by the time they made it to the WWF, they were nonetheless an irresistible attraction — two powerful, stiff brawlers with an absolutely awesome look. Moreover, they added to their legacy by returning for one last run years later in which they worked with The Godwinns and put over budding tag team du jour The New Age Outlaws.
Of the two, Hawk was the more athletic and the better talker. Also, you can question whether it was in good taste or not, but the nuance of bringing Hawk’s real-life issues with substance abuse, and the suggestion he experienced suicidal ideation later added extra complexity to the character and interest in the LOD. Unfortunately, this off-beat presentation also led to the team leaving the WWF, and Hawk tragically passed not long after.
164. Paul London
Top kayfabe accomplishments: London is a one-time Cruiserweight Champion and three-time tag champ in WWE.
Best moment: Teamed with Brian Kendrick the pair won a wild four-way Ladder Match to retain the WWE Tag Team Championship at Armageddon 2006, over MNM, The Hardy Boyz, and William Regal and Dave Taylor.
Rationale: London is a gifted athlete, whose style and personality have never quite jived with WWE — always a little too alternative and other there. If you want a taste of London unleashed, check out his recent work for Lucha Underground working a Mad Hatter-esque gimmick.
Despite his differences, London formed a weirdly quietly successful tag team with Brian Kendrick, including an early year-long run with the WWE Tag Team Championship. Unfortunately, between the brand split and the tag divisions on the whole not getting a lot of attention in those days, the reign is largely lost to the sands of time. Still, while London never got much chance to show his personality or thrive as a singles guy, his WWE resume remains quite respectable and he accomplished about as much as he could have hoped for in such a mainstream company, given his style.
164. Luke Harper
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Harper is a one-time Intercontinental Champion and kinda-sorta SmackDown Tag Team Champion (sharing those titles amongst the Wyatt family for their short reign of terror over the tag division).
Best moment: In November 2014, Harper attacked Dolph Ziggler by way of introducing himself to The Authority and pitching himself as a member of their Survivor Series team.
Rationale: It’s a cliché that WWE gives big, often undeserved pushes to largely talentless big men. Harper is that strange example of a big man who is actually an excellent in-ring worker and both unique and quite skilled at playing his off-beat character, yet WWE never seems to get fully behind him. A lot of it might have to do with his role as Bray Wyatt’s sidekick and occasional rival, as Harper has clearly been assigned to help Wyatt ascend rather than rising in his own right.
Nonetheless, Harper has had his moments as the workhorse of his early tag team with Erick Rowan, and a nice change of pace for the mid-card after he aligned with The Authority and went on to feud with the likes of Dolph Ziggler, Dean Ambrose, and Rowan. If there’s any justice, he will get a more sustained push at at least the upper mid-card level, but time will tell.
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Pierre was a three-time Tag Team Champion.
Best moment: Under the silly gimmick of a pirate heel, billed as Jean-Pierre Lafitte, Pierre put on a forgotten classic with Bret Hart at the third In Your House PPV.
Rationale: Pierre’s look — rounder than WWE tends to prefer — plus political disputes with The Kliq limited his potential, keeping him bound to the less than serious Quebecers tag team and a pirate gimmick. Just the same, his surprising athleticism and skilled workmanship in the ring meant that Pierre held onto a solid mid-card spot for about three years.
In multiple interviews, no lesser legend than Bret Hart has lauded Pierre as a worker who was both crisp and safe, and his talent showed in his stop-gap feud with Hart in 1995, not to mention underrated tag work, particularly opposite The Steiner Brothers, earlier in his WWF tenure.
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Kalisto is, to date, a two-time US champion.
Best moment: Kalisto defeated Alberto Del Rio on Raw to win the US Championship, his first title on the main roster.
Rationale: It’s been suggested Kalisto might be pegged as a replacement for Rey Mysterio — a small, masked luchador who’s an excellent worker, with a particularly impressive aerial repertoire. It’s too soon to say what Kalisto’s fate will look like. WWE demonstrated some level of faith in him, though with his first big push in US title contention last year. The jury’s out on whether the Cruiserweight division might offer a platform for him to thrive or normalize a part of the skillset that makes Kalisto special. One way or another, his star will like have likely risen or fallen if we were to revisit this countdown in five years.
160. Terry Taylor
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Taylor won a WrestleMania match over kayfabe mentor Bobby Heenan.
Best moment: Taylor paid off a storyline of having been bullied and belittled by manager Heenan by squashing him in a match at WrestleMania 5.
Rationale: Make no mistake about it — Taylor was a far more talented wrestler than this ranking would suggest, but as an in-ring performer with WWE, he suffered under The Red Rooster gimmick. A popular rumor suggests Taylor and Curt Hennig were each up for the “part” of Mr. Perfect, and while I agree with Hennig winning out on that one, it’s a particularly cruel fate that talented Taylor would end up in a gimmick so impossible to take seriously as an alternative.
To his credit, Taylor was committed to his bit, going so far as to bob his head like a rooster between moves, but the guy just didn’t get much of a chance, a lower card heel, then a lower card face who had his hands full with The Brooklyn Brawler. He had a brief, often forgotten, second run with the WWF a few years later that went little better, and an even less remembered short stint during the Attitude Era, an on-air commentator who wrestled on house shows to help coach and put over younger talents.
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Natalya is a one-time Divas Champion.
Best moment: Natalya put over Charlotte in an outstanding match to crown a new NXT Women’s Champion in an early step toward establishing her as the preeminent women’s star in WWE.
Rationale: Natalya is that rare second-generation star who was quite arguably a better all-around performer than her parent, but nonetheless had a less celebrated career (at least in kayfabe). Natalya’s career with WWE has suffered from strange timing, with her prime falling in between periods when WWE favored serious women’s wrestling so that she was a foundation for less talented workers to get the rub off of, and later became the veteran figure among the bright up and comers at the fore of WWE women’s wrestling today.
For only having had one, two-month reign as champion, Natalya’s nonetheless an under-recognized great of her era who has hung around and remained a top-tier in-ring performer for nearly a decade at this point.
158. The Junkyard Dog
Top kayfabe accomplishments: JYD won the Wrestling Classic — the featured tournament for WWE’s first true PPV, a half-year after the original WrestleMania aired on closed-circuit television.
Best moment: Not only did The Dog win the aforementioned tournament, but did so by defeating up and comer Randy Savage in the tournament final and PPV main event.
Rationale: Rarely has a wrestler gotten more over on sheer charisma and ability to connect with the crowd than The Junkyard Dog, who, particularly by the time he came to the WWF, wasn’t much of an in-ring worker and didn’t have much of an athlete’s look, but was supremely over with the fans, carrying over from his days as the face of Mid-South prior to Vince McMahon signing him away. JYD remained a steady face and mid-card attraction during McMahon’s national expansion.
Beyond his big night at The Wrestling Classic, JYD’s WWF career was largely inconsequential, made up of reasonably high profile, but ultimately forgettable programs with other under-utilized high profile WWF signees like Greg Valentine and Harley Race.
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Ryback was a one-time Intercontinental Champion who worked the main event scene opposite CM Punk and John Cena.
Best moment: At the end of a fall 2012 episode of Raw, Ryback confronted reigning WWE Champion CM Punk, instantaneously inserting the undefeated Big Guy into the world title picture for the first time.
Rationale: Ryback seems like he ought to have been a major success story — a super jacked guy with underrated charisma who got over time and again, particularly as a face, with his feed me more chant and smash-mouth style in the ring. Just the same, his limitations as an in-ring worker and creative differences with management left him largely adrift and the subject of near constant start-stop pushes.
156. Big E
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Big E is a one-time Intercontinental Champion and two-time Tag Team Champion.
Best moment: Big E and his New Day teammates survived a particularly tumultuous night on Raw, fending off Luke Gallows and Karl Anderson, Sheamus and Cesaro, Kevin Owens and Chris Jericho, and Roman Reigns and Seth Rollins to break the record for longest tag title reign in WWE history (ultimately setting a new record at 483 days).
Rationale: Big E debuted in big way, laying out John Cena at the end of an episode of Raw, but quickly receded to Dolph Ziggler’s sidekick and a solidly mid-card act. His run has been topsy-turvy since, gaining momentum then becoming just another guy as a heel, then as a face, before finding his footing in the wildly entertaining, wildly over, wildly successful New Day triumvirate.
Big E could very easily wind up moving up a countdown like this in the years ahead. Between his look, power, athleticism, and the personality that went on display with New Day, he has all the tools to be an upper card guy, and maybe even a main eventer if he got a big break.
155. The Brian Kendrick
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Kendrick is a two-time tag champ and a former Cruiserweight Champion in WWE.
Best moment: Kendrick defeated TJ Perkins at Hell in a Cell 2016 to win the Cruiserweight Championship.
Rationale: One of Shawn Michaels’s trainees, Kendrick has had a strange odyssey of a career across the wrestling business. His career has included on and off runs with WWE, including a big tag run with Paul London for a deceptively great team during a down period for tag wrestling, to debuting the millennial-ish The Brian Kendrick period, to his latest stint as the veteran heel of the Cruiserweight division. Through it all, he’s been a rock solid worker, growing from an energetic young high-flyer to the submission-based, well-defined character he is today.
While Kendrick loses some standing in this countdown for his limited longevity in WWE, he’s surely all the better as an all-around performer for those times in between as a talent who worked diverse indies and emerged a truly complete wrestler.
154. Brian Pillman
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Pillman had one PPV main event win as part of the Hart Foundation’s five-man team that prevailed at In Your House: Canadian Stampede.
Best moment: Pillman was the featured player in a unique home invasion angle that saw Steve Austin come to Pillman’s house with the intention of pummeling him, and Pillman brandished a handgun that he seemed to have designs on using. The controversial segment, that included not only gun play but over-the-top profanity, got WWE in hot water with the USA Network.
Rationale: Brian Pillman’s Loose Cannon gimmick was nothing if not unique. Pillman played unhinged beautifully, and managed to carry the character across WCW, ECW, and WWF lines before the gun angle finally made WWE management realize the limits of the character and Attitude Era programming in general.
While Pillman was an exceptional athlete in his earlier days as a wrestler, by the time he made it to the WWF, his real-life ankle issues had put an end to the high-flying he was known best known for. He gets an A for character work — that carried him through angles opposite Steve Austin and Goldust, and that’s why he reaches this high on the countdown. His limitations as a worker in the WWF were profound enough to keep him from climbing any higher, besides the tragedy of his untimely death, less than a year into his tenure with the company.
153. Zack Ryder
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Zack Ryder is a one-time Intercontinental, US, and Tag Team Champion.
Best moment: Ryder paid off months of reality-bending build, including pushing himself via his self-produced YouTube show, with a US Championship win over Dolph Ziggler at TLC 2011.
Rationale: Ryder is a unique talent. He could easily have been forgotten as an underutilized underdog guy after his initial tag team push as half of The Edge Heads. Ryder took matters into his own hands, though, producing his own YouTube show, Z! True Long Island Story and taking to Twitter to produce a groundswell of grass roots support for himself before WWE had really embraced social media.
After the feel good story of Ryder chasing and finally defeating Dolph Ziggler for the US title, he looked like he’d get an extended run in the upper mid-card, only to lose the title quickly to Jack Swagger and slide down the card over the years to follow. Ryder hung around and worked hard, which ultimately paid off in a surprise win out of nowhere at the WrestleMania 32 Intercontinental Championship Ladder Match, but he wound up dropping that title and dropping out of the title picture the next night.
Ryder remains a deceptively influential figure for the way he got himself over in the first place, but also remains something of a cautionary tale for the glass ceiling that can go on guys who succeed outside of WWE’s plans.
152. Samoa Joe
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Joe is currently undefeated on the main roster, with one PPV victory under his belt.
Best moment: Joe made a shocking surprise debut on Raw and annihilated top player Seth Rollins.
Rationale: In all fairness, I’m objectively overrating Samoa Joe here, given he just barely makes the three-match cut off for this countdown and debuted on the main roster less than two months ago. That said, he’s an all-time great indy worker who had a rock-solid NXT residency, and has been well-protected as a very big deal on Raw since getting the call up. His short time has included violent assaults on Seth Rollins and Sami Zayn, and decisive wins in very good matches opposite Cesaro and Zayn.
The jury’s most certainly still out on where WWE’s going with Joe and what kind of longevity he’ll have with the company. If his white hot beginnings are any indication, though, his aspirations of becoming a WWE world champ may well become a reality in the years, if not months ahead.
151. Greg Valentine
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Valentine was an Intercontinental and Tag Team Champion.
Best moment: Valentine seemingly got the best of arch-rival Ronnie Garvin when he pinned him to win a Retirement Match on TV (though Garvin would continue the angle as a ref before returning to his role as a wrestler).
Rationale: Valentine spent most of his WWF tenure as an odd fit — a rock solid worker who didn’t look like an athlete at a time when the promotion most aggressively favored sizzle over steak. Nonetheless, he built a solid career as an upper mid-card heel and tag teaming with the likes of Brutus Beefcake and The Honky Tonk Man.
Valentine would finish up as a face putting over newer mid-card acts, and then have another short run in the mid-1990s, and doing some cameo work for WWE as a legend over the years to follow.
Top kayfabe accomplishments: At the time of writing, Neville is the current Cruiserweight Champion.
Best moment: Neville ruthlessly made Rich Swann tap in order to win the Cruiserweight Championship.
Rationale: After a highly decorated run in NXT, Neville looked as though he might be one of those talents that fizzled for lack of direction on the main roster. Fortunately, the introduction of the Cruiserweight Division and a complete character revamp as the heel King of the Cruiserweights set him on a new trajectory as not just an athletically gifted performer, but strong for his size and technically talented, too. It remains to be seen just how far he’ll go in the gimmick, but we are starting to see glimmers of what made the man special in NXT and on the indy scene before that, as a multifaceted performer capable of strong character work.
149. Ron Simmons
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Simmons was a three-time Tag Team Champion in WWE.
Best moment: It’s hard to nail down a particular instance, but I’ll give it to any one of Simmons’s signature backstage segments with Bradshaw, smoking cigars, drinking beer, and playing cards while they waited for a diverse cast of mid-carders to buy their services as bodyguards or mercenaries.
Rationale: Simmons is probably best remembered for two things: being the first world heavyweight champion for a major national pro wrestling promotion in the US, and for his “Damn!” catchphrase, used to express incredulity toward the end of his full-time career and in cameos as a legend.
Simmons is one of wrestling’s all-time great athletes and true bad asses. While he got a big push upon first arriving in the WWF and soon after in heading up the Nation of Domination, once The Rock’s star began to outshine his, the writing was on the wall for his WWF career. He’d go on to be a respected mid-carder and, above all else, a tag star with the APA — a terrific bruising tag team that probably would have grown much more legendary if their tenure hadn’t so thoroughly overlapped with the brighter stars of The Hardys, Dudleys, and Edge and Christian. Against the odds and major kayfabe accomplishments, Simmons stayed over as a badass and a memorable character.
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Tazz was a three-time Hardcore Champion and one-time Tag Team Champion in WWE.
Best moment: To open the second One Night Stand PPV, Tazz squashed arch-rival Jerry Lawler, choking him out quickly to the delight of the pro-ECW crowd.
Rationale: Tazz was always an odd fit for WWE — short and squat, though he still looked like a bad ass. His offense focused on throws and chokes that were brutally realistic and that took him far in ECW, where he established his credibility, while putting a ceiling on how high he could ascend in WWE. It’s debatable how high Tazz might have climbed were he younger or, more to the point, less hurt by the time he got to WWE, but regardless, despite a few super high profile spots like beating Kurt Angle in his debut, he never really broached the main event or even the upper mid-card with any consistency.
147. Molly Holly
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Holly was a two-time Women’s Champion and one-time Hardcore Champion.
Best moment: Holly heeled it up as the top female villain going into WrestleMania 20 and got a her moment of the spotlight having her head shaved live on PPV as a result of a pre-match stipulation, after she lost to Victoria.
Rationale: While fans more readily remember Trish Stratus and Lita as the icons of the golden age for women’s wrestling that went down in WWE in the latter stages and immediate aftermath of the Attitude Era, Holly is one of those less revered but little less capable supporting players of that roster who thrived as both a silly persona in the largely comedic Holly Family and then playing The Huricane’s sidekick, and as a supreme technical heel toward the end of her WWE run.
Holly had a solid five-year run with WWE, before she got caught in the changing winds of how WWE booked women — a serious wrestler among models the company signed on the hope they could learn to wrestle competently — before she finally walked away from the company.
146. Rick Steiner
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Steiner was a two-time WWF Tag Team Champion.
Best moment: With his brother Scott, Rick captured the WWF tag titles for the first time over Money Inc. Though the occasion went down at a house show, and is largely lost to the sands of time, it added to The Steiner Brothers’ highly decorated legacy and put them at the center of the tag title scene opposite Money Inc. and then The Quebecers for months to follow.
Rationale: Rick Steiner is an interesting figure in wrestling because he was, in his own right, a fine worker with good charisma and a good look. The thing is that his younger brother Scott was better in each of these areas. On one hand, you can say Scott cast a big shadow and Rick would look better without the comparison. On the other hand, Rick’s longevity as a top tag guy around the globe, and later opportunities as a singles guy in WCW are largely attributable to him getting to go along for Scott’s successes (and, indeed, Scott purportedly put off his own singles career for years out of loyalty to his brother).
As far as the WWF goes, Rick only had a little over a year to make a case for himself, but did so well as a belly-to-belly and clothesline machine who was a more or less equally popular half of the super-over Steiner tag team.
145. Harley Race
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Though Race’s accomplishments in the WWF on screen were limited, he did win two reasonably high-profile, non-televised tournaments in 1986 — the second ever iteration of King of the Ring and The Sam Muchnick Memorial Tournament.
Best moment: In front of a crowd billed to have had over 93,000 people, Race defeated The Junkyard Dog at WrestleMania 3. JYD had to bow to him and the match effectively blew off their rivalry.
Rationale: Race is that rare legend who was a huge deal outside the WWF (seven-time NWA World Heavyweight Champion) and maintained his dignity, coming in as a respected veteran for the WWF. Though he never captured gold, upon arriving in WWE, he promptly won the King of the Ring tournament and espoused a king gimmick that fittingly anointed him as wrestling royalty for the WWF audience, and proceeded to spend his WWF tenure as a serious upper mid-carder, who even had a short face run — belying his overwhelmingly heel career — to put over new king Haku toward the end of his tenure.
144. Bob Orton Jr.
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Orton was a main event sidekick, backing Roddy Piper and sometimes Paul Orndorff in the early days of the WrestleMania era.
Best moment: Orton was in the thick of a melee to close out the original WrestleMania main event, including accidentally KOing his heel ally Paul Orndorff with his cast.
Rationale: In kayfabe, Orton may have the weakest regenerative powers of any wrestler ever — his arm was in a cast for decades, though he iconically used that cast for his evil-doing purposes as a steady foreign object. The gimmick and his rock solid skills brought him to main event scene as Roddy Piper’s sidekick opposite Hulk Hogan and friends, and even saw Orton challenge Hogan himself on occasion, though he more directly feuded with Jimmy Snuka.
After his high-profile run with Piper, Orton settled into the mid-card teaming with and ultimately feuding with Don Muraco. He’d have an unexpected additional opportunity with WWE years down the road when his son Randy blossomed into a fringe main eventer feuding with The Undertaker and called in his old man for extra support. Orton fell right back into his best role as henchman for a top heel for one last, good run.
143. Nikolai Volkoff
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Volkoff was a Tag Team Champion.
Best moment: Representing The Soviet Union, Volkoff challenged Hulk Hogan for the WWF Championship in a Flag Match at what was just the second Saturday Night’s Main Event special.
Rationale: Though Volkoff was a little over the hill by the first WrestleMania, it was at that show that he won his only WWF gold, teaming with The Iron Sheik to Defeat the The US Express. That win was a fine encapsulation of who Volkoff was for the company — a steady, big heel, whose evil foreigner shtick was a good Cold War fit. He went on to a spell as a fine placeholder challenger for all-American hero and world title holder Hulk Hogan.
Volkoff would slide more firmly into the mid-card and tag scene as the years went on, putting over younger teams as half of The Bolsheviks, briefly playing a converted face to challenge Iraqi sympathizer Sgt. Slaughter, and winding up his full-time career as one of several ineffectual big bodies for Ted Dibiase’s Million Dollar Corporation.
142. Tully Blanchard
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Blanchard was a Tag Team Champion in the WWF.
Best moment: Blanchard and Arn Anderson defeated Demolition to not only win the tag titles, but end Demolition’s historic year-plus reign with the belts.
Rationale: Blanchard is the kind of guy who wills his way onto a spot this high in the countdown based on sheer excellence as an in-ring performer (not to mention that he was good on the mic) despite only having one year on the WWF roster to have made his claim, and only having been a tag guy during that time. Just the same, as half of The Brain Busters, under Bobby Heenan’s heat magnet tutelage, Blanchard brought a realism and technical precision to the WWF tag scene rarely seen before or since.
141. Tommy Dreamer
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Dreamer was an ECW Champion and fourteen-time Hardcore Champion in WWE.
Best moment: Dreamer defeated Jack Swagger and Christian to not only win WWE’s ECW Championship, but become the only guy to hold both the original and WWE versions of the ECW title.
Rationale: Dreamer built his legacy in ECW as a guy who went from pretty boy to hardcore style, winning over the tough ECW crowd in the process, and demonstrating tremendous loyalty by being the top guy to stick out with the promotion until the bitter end. Since then, it’s been Dreamer’s ECW pedigree that has earned him opportunities in WWE, TNA, and in high profile spots around the indy circuit.
In WWE, Dreamer was always at least a little past his prime, but remained a credible mid-card threat who could take a step higher during ECW re-hash angles and particularly after WWE formally relaunched the ECW brand.
140. Marty Jannetty
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Jannetty was an Intercontinental Champion and Tag Team Champion.
Best moment: After a several-month absence, Jannetty returned on an episode of Raw to pose an impromptu challenge to reigning Intercontinental Champion Shawn Michaels, and won the title in an excellent match.
Rationale: Jannetty has, unfortunately, become something of a punchline — the other guy from The Rockers to Michaels having emerged as a megastar. Just the same, he was a fine professional wrestler in his own right — an excellent fast-paced high flyer as half of The Rockers and later teaming with Al Snow and The 1–2–3 Kid. Jannetty also went on to put on some excellent matches with Michaels as a singles performer. Though Jannetty’s purported issues with drugs and alcohol limited what he was able to accomplish in WWE, he remains a solid — arguably ahead of his time — mid-card and tag worker for his era.
139. Mr. Kennedy
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Kennedy was a US Champion and Money in the Bank briefcase winner.
Best moment: Kennedy got the star treatment at WrestleMania 23 with a big entrance on the way down to the Money in the Bank Ladder Match, before pulling off the big win over a star-studded field that also included Randy Orton, Edge, Jeff Hardy, and King Booker in a very good match.
Rationale: Kennedy had a rollercoaster ride through WWE, purportedly set up for a multiple huge pushes in winning Money in the Bank (taken off of him due to injury and the urgent need for a cash in), getting slated to be the culprit in the who killed Mr. McMahon angle (derailed because of the real-life Chris Benoit murder-suicide), and as the beneficiary the who’s Mr. McMahon’s bastard child angle (switched to Hornswoggle), and a big face run opposite King William Regal (Regal got a Wellness Suspension just as the angle was getting good). A combination of bad timing and Kennedy getting injured led to none of these angles ever playing out the way they were supposed to, before the powers that be reportedly got trigger shy about Kennedy being injury-prone, and Randy Orton allegedly complained Kennedy wasn’t a safe worker. The upshot was Kennedy getting de-pushed and ultimately released before ever realized the potential of any of his big angles.
For all of the times Kennedy’s big plans and opportunities didn’t pan out, he nonetheless had the charisma and the in-ring work, when he was motivated, to justify management’s interest in him. Had any of those big chances panned out, Kennedy could easily crack the top hundred, and his early work in TNA post-WWE suggest he might have been able to accomplish a lot more (though also that he probably would have been a better fit for the Attitude Era, when his foul-mouthed personality really could have had the opportunity to shine).
138. Arn Anderson
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Anderson was a Tag Team Champion.
Best moment: Anderson returned to the ring for not one more match, but one more cameo, nailing The Undertaker with a spinebuster out of nowhere to garner a modicum of revenge for The Dead Man’s previous attack on him, and help out Ric Flair in the effort to challenge The Phenom at WrestleMania 18.
Rationale: Trust me, I’d love to rank Arn Anderson way higher, but in a WWE-only countdown that balances kayfabe and shoot metrics, Anderson only has one year as a tag guy, plus some cameo legend appearances to count here. So, one of wrestling’s all-time great mechanics, not to mention a smart-working heel would could talk and contribute creatively, finds himself toward the middle of the pack on this list.
To toot Anderson’s horn to the appropriate degree, though, Anderson and Tully Blanchard were a great team for their tenure, elevating the whole division at the time with their work opposite the likes of The Rockers, The Hart Foundation, Demolition, and Strike Force.
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Viscera was a Tag Team Champion, Hardcore Champion, and King of the Ring who challenged for the WWF Championship briefly and the ECW Championship much later in his career.
Best moment: As Mabel, he pulled off an unlikely victory in the King of the Ring tournament 1995, out of a field that also included Shawn Michaels, The Undertaker, and Yokozuna, which placed Mabel alongside Bret and Owen Hart as the first three Kings of the Ring of the tournament’s PPV era.
Rationale: Viscera is that odd figure who, by virtue of standing 6’9” and weighing nearly five hundred pounds, paired with reasonable mobility, always had a spot on the WWE roster, and often as not that spot was in a high-profile position because it was kind of a waste not to have a guy that big not contending with (and more of than not putting over) top guys. It was a rollercoaster ride for him, though, ranging from dopey good guy tag work with Mo when he debuted as half of Men on a Mission, followed by a poorly received main event heel run, after which point he was cast as a supersized henchman in the Ministry of Darkness. As Viscera, he went from monster mid-carder to comedic womanizer before being rebranded as monster heel Big Daddy V on the WWE ECW brand.
For his kayfabe success and general competency, Viscera can’t really rate any lower, though he never evolved into quite the serious monster WWE might have hoped for (not to mention that he was rumored to have been reckless in injuring other guys).
136. The Godfather
Top kayfabe accomplishments: The Godfather won an Intercontinental and a Tag Team Championship, and briefly flirted with the main event scene when he first signed with WWE.
Best moment: A controversial pick to be sure, but I’ll go with his work as Papa Shango when he made The Ultimate Warrior secrete black ooze/blood in a promo segment via his voodoo magic.
Rationale: If ever a guy did his best with a full spectrum of gimmicks, it was Charles Wright who started as a voodoo priest, became a streetfighter, was briefly a serious heel who championed censorship, but earned the most long-term success as a pimp during the Attitude Era.
The Godfather was never a particularly polished worker and quickly proved himself unworthy of top billing in his lackluster work toward the top as Papa Shango, but he was rock solid, loyal employee who was of service to WWE from its most cartoonish point through the Attitude Era, evolved with the times and became an iconic figure.
135. Jacques Rougeau
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Rougeau was a one-time Intercontinental Champion and three-time Tag Team Champion.
Best moment: With tag partner Pierre as The Quebecers, Rougeau won tag gold for the first time, beating The Steiner Brothers by disqualification under special rules that allowed the titles to change hands via DQ.
Rationale: Rougeau is the kind of talent who could easily be dismissed for his limited kayfabe success and cartoonish gimmick. While his work with his brother Raymond as The Fabulous Rougeaus was relatively serious, he spent his higher profile days in a Mountie costume as either The Mountie or teaming up as half of The Quebecers. Rougeau was a solid worker with good longevity. He hung around the company and consistently on TV for about eight years, most memorably including programs with Bret Hart and The Steiners, before winding up his mainstream career in WCW.
134. Doink the Clown
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Doink the Clown worked two WrestleManias, including a one-on-one victory at his first.
Best moment: In a moment of memorable chicanery, Doink had an accomplice, dressed just like him, enter the ring to beat arch-rival Crush with a prosthetic arm and help him secure the victory in their match at WrestleMania 9.
Rationale: While Doink has, in retrospect, become something of a punchline — literally, a wrestling clown — I’ve always had a soft spot for him, particularly in his initial heel run as an evil clown who terrorized fans before outsmarting Crush and looking as though he might become a legit upper mid-card threat. The character fizzled before long, leading up to a face turn that really did make him a joke, made all the worse when the original Doink, Matt Borne, left the WWF and lesser talents took on the role (not to mention the additional of farcical midget sidekick Dink).
While I might be overrating Doink a bit, as I alluded to earlier, he’s a personal favorite from a my guilty pleasure period of WWF fanship, and I’d argue that Borne, left to his devices and allowed to go a little darker was on to something special.
133. Becky Lynch
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Lynch was the first SmackDown Women’s Champion in WWE.
Best moment: Lynch won a solid six-woman elimination match to become the first women’s champ on SmackDown after the second brand split.
Rationale: When it comes to timing working out in unexpected ways, you might look to Lynch as one of the luckiest of WWE stars. After a decade-long career in which the Irish Lass Kicker traveled the globe, she had officially retired before WWE got seriously about women’s wrestling, and Lynch wound up in NXT to work alongside up and comers Charlotte, Sasha Banks, and Bayley. Lynch delivered, particularly in her fantastic matches opposite Banks, and when it came time to bring a class of women up to the main roster to launch the Divas Revolution angle, Lynch was among those called up and has since shored up a spot as one of WWE’s all-time best female workers.
On the main roster, Lynch has become a rock solid face presence, betrayed by ally after ally, but remaining true and remaining a fantastic worker against a range of opponents. When the brand split happened, she was entrusted with heading up the women’s side on SmackDown, removed from Banks, Charlotte, and eventually Bayley as the higher profile stars, and trusted help get Alexa Bliss polished and over. One can only assume that she’ll remain in that spot, in or around the title picture and continuing to help get younger stars ready to continue carrying that Straight Fire torch in the years ahead.
132. Damien Sandow
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Sandow is a former Tag Team Champion in WWE and winner of a Money in the Bank Ladder Match.
Best moment: Sandow emerged from an unconventional field full of heel underdogs to win a Money in the Bank briefcase in a very good match in 2013.
Rationale: After spending the better part of a decade, on and off, in WWE’s developmental system, Damien Sandow finally got his shot on the main roster. His original main roster gimmick as Intellectual Savior went over reasonably well as a mid-card act, though the character seemed to have a glass ceiling on it. He made the most of this spell nonetheless, forming the fun Rhodes Scholars tag team with Cody Rhodes that probably would have gotten a title run had Team Hell No not caught fire just as Rhodes and Sandow got going. Sandow looked as though he’d get his big break when he won a Money in the Bank briefcase in 2013, but when he used it to unsuccessfully challenge a weakened John Cena, the writing was on the wall that he was never going to get his big break.
Sandow made an unlikely resurgence, playing The Miz’s stunt double in a gimmick that got over based purely on Sandow’s charisma and comedic talents. He looked like he might break new ground feuding with Miz and coming super close to wining the second Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal, but in each case had any momentum squandered, used sparingly on TV for extended stretches, and jobbed out into oblivion when he did make it on screen.
Sandow has enjoyed some success since getting released, and particularly since signing with TNA and taking on the character Aron Rex. He remains the sort of talent who it wouldn’t be a surprise to see resurface on the WWE landscape and resume his spot in the mid-card, but just as likely, particularly given the way in which WWE stalled out his booking more than once, we may never see him get another chance there again.
131. Big John Studd
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Studd won a Royal Rumble and feuded with Hulk Hogan in the main event scene.
Best moment: In just the second Royal Rumble and the first of that aired on PPV, Studd won the battle royal as a face.
Rationale: Unlike so many guys who I have to provide caveats for about having hit their prime before the WrestleMania years or in other major promotions rather than WWE, for Studd, despite his WWF tenure being cut more or less in half by the ‘Mania dividing line, his accomplishments remain more or less the same, and he loses at most five-to-ten places for clipped longevity.
Studd was a solid but unspectacular super-sized villain to rival Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant in the early-to-mid-1980s, only to return in the late 1980s as a face to feud with Andre the Giant and Bobby Heenan, before leaving the promotion. He was perfectly good in his role, but it was a role that didn’t exactly call for more than an impressive look and reasonable charisma.
130. Bob Holly
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Holly was a four-time tag champ, six-time Hardcore Champion, and briefly appeared at the main event level feuding with Brock Lesnar.
Best moment: In an unlikely turn, Hardcore Holly and his kayfabe cousin Crash defeated the vaunted Rock n Sock Connection to win the tag titles on an episode of Raw.
Rationale: Despite never arriving as an icon or a true main event guy, Bob Holly had remarkable longevity as a nearly fifteen-year veteran of WWE who started as a super gimmicky race car driver, evolved into a violent hardcore specialist, and settled into the role of respected veteran jobber to the stars in his twilight.
While Holly has some reputation for being stiff in terms of ring work and personality, he’s just the same a guy who earned the respect of his peers by and large and ability to adapt according to the time and what WWE needed of him.
129. Bubba Ray Dudley
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Dudley is a ten-time tag champ and eight-time Hardcore Champion with WWE.
Best moment: Amidst a flurry of guys diving off ladders and through tables, the Dudleys coexisted as solid bases for frenetic three- and four-way battles involving The Hardy Boyz and Edge and Christian (I’ll peg the WrestleMania 17 TLC 2 bout as my favorite).
Rationale: Bubba Ray Dudley will be best remembered in WWE history as the slightly more verbal and charismatic half of a great tag team. And make no mistake about it, the Dudleys were great for their cumulative nearly eight years on the WWE landscape, a formidable duo that wreaked havoc throughout the latter days of the Attitude Era before settling into the role of veteran team that could be plugged into the title picture as needed, followed by one last run of nostalgia and putting over younger guys.
It’s unfortunate that Dudley only got a short spell to ply his trade as a singles guy — a face on the Raw roster for a bit, in the wake of the original WWE Draft. WWE seemed to decide pretty quickly that the Dudleys were more valuable as a unit and, after about six months, pulled the plug on Bubba Ray as a singles face and D-Von as a heel preacher, and got the band back together. Years later, Bubba Ray would make the most of his opportunities in TNA, including a brief run as a top-tier face, followed by what was arguably the best work of his career as the top heel.
128. Barry Windham
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Windham was a two-time Tag Team Champion in the WWF.
Best moment: Windham, teamed with Mike Rotunda, won back the tag titles from The Iron Sheik and Nikolai Volkoff, whom they’d lost the titles to at the original WrestleMania on WWF TV.
Rationale: Call him The Stalker, call him the Widowmaker, call him good ol’ Barry Windham. Whatever the case, Windham is pretty universally agreed to be one of the best in-ring workers of the last thirty-three years. The trouble, for the purposes of this ranking, is that the overwhelming majority of his best successes as a mat artist and in kayfabe went down outside of WWE. So, Windham gets plenty of credit as a great mechanic here, but can only go so high based on the kayfabe component and on longevity given he never hung around for much more than two years consecutively and only for about five years cumulatively.
127. Savio Vega
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Vega was a finalist for the 1995 King of the Ring tournament.
Best Moment: In one of the strangest WWE PPV Events of all time, In Your House: Beware of Dog, the power went out at the arena, but the show went on. Vega defeated Steve Austin in a Caribbean Strap Match under these unique circumstances; Vega won the proper rematch at the re-do PPV two nights later.
Rationale: Vega had five solid years as a WWF Superstar, starting as the masked ninja Kwang, before he unmasked and saw his Puerto Rican roots become a fundamental piece of character. Vega cut a wicked pace in the ring and was a skilled brawler with good agility. He did well in the mid-card, most notably getting the better of a rivalry with Steve Austin before he was Stone Cold, and playing Razor Ramon’s sidekick.
Vega’s fortunes turned when he joined The Nation of Domination, and was notably the first wrestler to pin The Rock (like Stone Cold, before he was a big deal) which segued to him heading up Los Boricuas in the gang warfare stable. Throughout it all, Vega was committed and hardworking, though he was never rewarded with any hardware.
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Smash was a three-time Tag Team Champion.
Best moment: With partner Ax, as Demolition, Smash won his first tag gold by taking apart Strike Force. They’d go on to hold onto the titles for well over a year in a run that set the WWE record until The New Day bested it over twenty-five years later.
Rationale: Smash was the younger, workhorse element of the Demolition tag team with Ax, who transitioned into the role of veteran as Ax moved to part time and Crush joined the team. While the duo may have started out derivative of The Road Warriors, they made a name for themselves and were arguably actually the better team in the ring.
Smash would go on to reinvent himself in the silly Repo Man gimmick. I’ve long held that the difference between occupational gimmicks that did and did not stick was commitment to the bit. Though it may have been to his detriment, he got that Repo Man character as far over as anyone could hope to as a sneaky villain.
Top kayfabe accomplishments: MVP is a two-time US Champion and one-time Tag Team Champion.
Best moment: MVP defeated Chris Benoit in a two-out-of-three-falls match to win the US Championship at Judgment Day 2007.
Rationale: There were a couple brief periods when MVP really did look like a future WWE main eventer — in his initial run as a blue chip heel, and later when he first turned face and joined the Raw brand. In each instance, things didn’t quite go his way, and while he remains a memorable character who had a handful of memorable programs, including a series of better and better matches with Chris Benoit and one of WWE’s better takes on the tag-team-partners-who-just-can’t-get-along angle with Matt Hardy.
MVP nonetheless never broke the glass ceiling to truly become a main event level talent. He purportedly chose not to re-sign with WWE out of creative differences and a desire to work in Japan. He thus remains the kind of guy who you could always see return to the WWE mid-card, though I think his days of potentially moving past that point have passed.
124. Jamie Noble
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Noble was a Cruiserweight Champion.
Best moment: After weeks of mounting tension, Noble and partner in crime Joey Mercury, who had been providing “security” for heel world champ Seth Rollins, faced off with their charge in a handicap match. The pair of underdog, mostly retired vets would pick up the win with an assist from Dean Ambrose.
Rationale: While one could dismiss Noble as a cruiserweight who didn’t really break through to success in the heavyweight ranks, as a comedy act, or henchman in his more recent on-screen run, beneath each of his efforts was a supremely talented worker who was both pugnacious and technically gifted.
On top of his very good in-ring work, Noble was deceptively good as a character, particularly during his two more comedic eras playing white trash rich after he earned a large inheritance back in the early 2000s, and in the 2010s, playing the part of modern-day Stooge perfectly, particularly in his dead-pan delivery on the deluded assertion that he was The Authority’s secret weapon.
Top kayfabe accomplishments: In WWE, Sting had a high profile match at WrestleMania 31 and one PPV main event world title match opposite Seth Rollins.
Best moment: Sting made his first appearance in WWE by showing up unannounced in the main event of Survivor Series 2014 to foil The Authority’s shenanigans and help the faces to victory.
Rationale: In less than a year as an in-ring performer with WWE, only four matches, and only two of them victories (one by DQ, the other a tag match) Sting’s WWE resume doesn’t look like much on paper. Nonetheless, he signed with WWE already a legend with a world title credentials from WCW and TNA, and thus entered high profile and ready for prominent storylines.
Sting’s tenure included a well-plotted debut against Triple H at WrestleMania 31 that catered to their physical limitations via DX and nWo shenanigans that had the stadium crowd marking out, despite the questionable finish of Helmesley going over. From there, he feuded with then-world champ Seth Rollins, about the best use of Sting’s talents at the time to further legitimize Rollins as a world champion, though Sting wound up injured and wrestling his last match (at least for WWE) in their blow off match.
For his limited kayfabe success and his limited in-ring abilities by the time he signed with WWE, Sting can’t rank too high in this countdown, but for getting the most out of limited mileage and providing some special nostalgia-inducing moments for long-time fans, he’s worthy of some recognition.
122. The Texas Tornado
Top kayfabe accomplishments: The Texas Tornado was an Intercontinental Champion.
Best moment: Kerry Von Erich (though he was officially billed as The Texas Tornado for the length of his WWE tenure, I’m not going to be able to keep the Von Erich name out of this) defeated Mr. Perfect for the Intercontinental Championship in an impromptu match at SummerSlam 1990.
Rationale: Von Erich not only accomplished more (including an NWA World Championship win) and reached his prime prior to his WWF run, but before coming up to New York, he was working on two feet, while he worked through three years of a WWE contract on just one, with no fans the wiser at the time. It’s a testament to Von Erich’s skills as an athlete and practitioner of his trade that he was able to pull off the act as well as he did and win over WWF fans much like he had in Texas prior to that point.
While Von Erich would peak in his first half-year with the WWF, when he won the Intercontinental Championship, he would nonetheless enjoy a respectable run as a fan favorite and steady mid-carder in the WWF.
121. Chavo Guerrero Jr.
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Guerrero is a one-time WWE ECW Champion, four-time Cruiserweight Champion, and two-time Tag Team Champion.
Best moment: In a tribute to his uncle Eddie who had recently passed, Chavo picked up non-canon clean pin over former world champ JBL in the main event of an episode of SmackDown.
Rationale: You could make a real argument Chavo Guerrero Jr. should have a higher spot on this countdown — not in the sense that I should have placed him higher, but rather along the lines that he’s a talented athlete and worker with a pretty legendary pedigree and a willingness to do whatever management asked of him. Maybe Guerrero was a little too willing, because despite a strong start teaming with his uncle Eddie and good spell as the heel champ of ECW, Guerrero is better remembered in WWE for foibles including trying to pass as white golfer Kerwin White, dressing up as an eagle to back Jack Swagger and an interminably intended-to-be-comedic-but-super-lame feud with Hornswoggle.
So, for those spells when WWE did take him seriously and those times he had the opportunity to really ply his craft rather than play a humiliating character, Guerrero lands just outside the top 120, with the knowledge he had the potential to be so much more.
120. Val Venis
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Venis is a two-time Intercontinental Champion, one-time European Champion, and one-time World Tag Team Champion.
Best moment: Some fans love this moment and others hate it, but I’m going with Venis’s most memorable segment, shortly after his red-hot debut in a porn star gimmick, when he ran afoul of KaiEnTai and they dragged him backstage to try to castrate him.
Rationale: Val Venis is the epitome of the kind of guy who benefits from Vince Russo’s creative efforts. He’s a solid worker and talker who debuted in a provocative, Attitude Era-appropriate gimmick and was instantly recognizable and over for his character. He went on to a very respectable mid-card career full of mid-card title contention, and I’d argue that he stayed over to the extent he did because he was given a recognizable identity that got fans invested in early and that allowed him to weather his less immediately interesting times with Right to Censor or as Eric Bischoff’s sidekick.
119. The Iron Sheik
Top kayfabe accomplishments: In the WWF, during the WrestleMania years, The Iron Sheik won a Tag Team Championship.
Best moment: The Sheik last eliminated Hillbilly Jim to emerge winner of the Gimmick Battle Royal at WrestleMania 17, getting the last laugh on a bevy of other characters from years past.
Rationale: Recast this countdown to start its period of consideration a year and a half earlier, and in so doing count his brief world title reign through which he transitioned the world title from Bob Backlund to Hulk Hogan, and The Iron Sheik easily moves up fifty or more places in this countdown. Given the years in question however, we’re just missing Sheik’s prime both as a performer and in terms of his kayfabe standing.
For the time period given, though, Sheik was a tag guy and mid-carder, later Sgt. Slaughter’s sidekick under the Iraqi sympathizer gimmick, and finally a legend who made periodic appearances. He earns a relatively high spot for still being a great worker with a ton of charisma. Most remarkably, the guy somehow evolved from one of the business’s most hated villains into a guy who’s loved for nostalgia purposes and his persistently outspoken persona on and off air, spotlighted now on Twitter.
118. AJ Lee
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Lee was a three-time Divas Champion and a rare female authority figure as the GM of Raw for a spell.
Best moment: In the tradition of her real-life husband CM Punk, Lee delivered a heated worked shoot promo on the cast of Total Divas as part of her edgier character who was more serious about wrestling and who indirectly paved way for WWE women’s wrestling to evolve with stars to follow like Charlotte and Sasha Banks.
Rationale: From early in her main roster tenure, Lee stood out. She didn’t look like the blond bombshells who dominated the women’s roster, but rather was smaller, more athletic, and early on espoused her identity as a nerdy tomboy who loved video games. The character got over to a surprising degree and, paired with her legit in-ring skill, helped her become the highest profile female character on screen for a time — arguably over-pushed in her run as GM and as a key player in the John Cena-Dolph Ziggler program of 2012.
We’ll never know exactly what happened behind the scenes, but it’s easy enough to connect the dots of Lee’s philosophical differences with management about wanting women’s wrestling to skew more serious, and her marriage with estranged Superstar CM Punk, to bring her WWE career to a premature conclusion. It’s a shame, because Lee would probably be quite the contributor opposite the fresh faces of the women’s roster today, and finally have the opportunity to have the great matches I suspect she was fully capable of.
117. Sami Zayn
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Zayn has spent recent months in regular contention in the Universal and US Championship scenes.
Best moment: At the end one of the best WWE matches of the year in a stacked 2016, Zayn scored a clean pin fall over arch-rival Kevin Owens at the Battleground PPV to effectively blow off their rivalry, and to indirectly suggest Zayn’s kayfabe greatness given that Owens would win the Universal Championship shortly thereafter.
Rationale: Sami Zayn is an excellent aerial and technical worker, with the added bonus that he also might be the best pure babyface of his generation — a Ricky Steamboat-esque talent who can sell with the very best of them, come back with fire, and all the way exhibit a certain it factor that makes his loyal fans stick with him through thick and thin, including his general lack of advancement since he hit the main roster.
The good news for Zayn is that he’s still relatively young both in terms of his actual age and his tenure in WWE, so there’s still plenty of opportunity for him to move up, and if there’s justice in the WWE Universe, he will get at least the Dolph Ziggler treatment with multiple shots at the main event and a token world title win or two, and hopefully even more given his demonstrated ability to work great matches with pretty much anyone he crosses paths with in WWE.
116. Terry Funk
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Funk was a Tag Team Champion.
Best moment: In a selfless moment — both from a kayfabe and shoot perspective, Funk entered the Hell in a Cell Match between The Undertaker and Mankind to check on Mankind after he’d been thrown through the roof of the cell, and to take a beating from his own from The Dead Man that bout Mankind valuable time to recover.
Rationale: I’d argue that Terry Funk’s best work came in late 1980s WCW, in particular in his feud with Ric Flair, and that his iconic work as a veteran in ECW’s fledgling days were his next best effort. Just the same, Funk did put in some good efforts in the WWF, first in a couple-year run as a mid-card heel during the original Hulkamania era, then as a crazy old man, mostly working the Chainsaw Charlie gimmick alongside Mick Foley during The Attitude Era.
While Funk was neither in his prime, nor given the booking to work mat classics during either of these runs, they were nonetheless emblematic of parts of what made him great — a role player who accomplished a wide variety of ends of the course of his sprawling career, and ultimately noteworthy for being a talent who simply would not die or retire, but rather kept trucking along in violent fashion in the effort to get the next generation over time and again.
115. The Dynamite Kid
Top kayfabe accomplishments: The Dynamite Kid was a Tag Team Champion.
Best moment: Backed by Ozzy Osborne and Captain Lou Albano, The Dynamite Kid and Davey Boy Smith won the tag titles off of Greg Valentine and Brutus Beefcake at WrestleMania 2.
Rationale: The Dynamite Kid’s legacy is all about in-ring work. Particular for his efforts pre-WWF, he was a workhorse way ahead of his time, but he still had a fair bit to offer when he made it to the WWF. Those efforts were largely squandered in the lower profile tag team ranks, but he nonetheless got some opportunities to shine as the sharper worker of The British Bulldogs team.
The team thrived until Dynamite suffered a back injury and was never the same , leading the team to slip down the ranks for its last couple years. While Davey Boy Smith would move on to a reasonably successful career, this was largely the end of the road for Dynamite, though he’d go on to work at a lower profile and at a lesser level in Canada and Japan.
114. Dean Malenko
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Malenko was a two-time Light Heavyweight Champion.
Best moment: Malenko debuted on WWE TV alongside fellow WCW workhorse defectees Eddie Guerrero, Chris Benoit, and Perry Saturn as The Radicalz. While the guys went on to varied degrees of success, their initial surprise appearance on Raw was electric.
Rationale: While Malenko’s best work and biggest kayfabe successes came before his time in WWE and he wound up retiring from full-time wrestling after little more than a year in WWF, he was still one of the wrestling world’s greatest technicians by the time he made it to the company, and he made the most of an ill fit — a master worker with limited character doing his best in a promotion and era that was all about personality. His feud with Scotty 2 Hotty was a fine introduction to the WWE audience, and his Double Ho Seven gimmick and strange feud with Team Extreme was a little uncomfortable in retrospect, but a fit for its time.
113. Wendi Richter
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Richter was a Women’s Champion in the WWF during the WrestleMania years (a two-time champ counting her reign immediately before ‘Mania).
Best moment: Richter defeated Lelaini Kai at WrestleMania 1 to regain the Women’s Championship
Rationale: Richter’s history in the WWF is pretty fascinating. By most accounts, Vince McMahon decided that he wanted a new woman on top for the launch of his new generation of programming, and Richter was selected pretty arbitrarily from a roster of wrestlers The Fabulous Moolah had trained and real-life managed. Richter ended Moolah’s reign (billed to have lasted for twenty-eight years, though there were plenty of short and phantom title changes in the interim) and became a sensation during the Rock N Wrestling partnership with MTV, including getting backed by music megastar of the day Cyndi Lauper and having a prominent match at The War to Settle the Score special on MTV, which led to an even more prominent match at the original WrestleMania.
Richter purportedly got into a beef with McMahon about what she was earning, in which each side had a reasonable point. Richter had grown into a bigger star than her compensation would suggest (quite arguably more popular than anyone on the roster besides Hogan and Andre). Just the same, her talents weren’t exactly irreplaceable and the WWF didn’t entirely need her. This all led to The Original Screwjob in which a masked Moolah shoot pinned Richter to take the title and send Richter packing from the territory.
In the end, Richter was a competent wrestler in the right place at the right time to get massively over, before backstage politics got the best of her.
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Hakushi feuded with Bret Hart when he was in between world title reigns.
Best moment: Hakushi’s match with Bret Hart at the original In Your House show is a forgotten gem of skilled workmanship and aerial innovation (for the US audience at the time).
Rationale: I’m a bit abashed to say that I didn’t have any real sense of how good Hakushi was when I watched him live, though in watching back his mid-1990s matches — in particular opposite Bret Hart and The 1–2–3 Kid — it’s painfully obvious that this guy was way ahead of his time with his artful insinuation of aerial offense.
As is the case for so many wrestlers from Japan, the WWF more or less made the fact that he was from Japan his whole gimmick, which didn’t exactly provide a lot of room for character development, though Hakushi did have a decent enough lower card face run after he lost an upset fall to perennial jobber Barry Horowitz, and in turn stood up for Horowitz and against Skip who picked on him.
111. Mickie James
Top kayfabe accomplishments: James is a six-time women’s champ in WWE and defeated Lita in her retirement match.
Best moment: At WrestleMania 22, James countered Trish Stratus’s Stratusfaction finisher by grabbing her opponent’s crotch, and afterward licked her fingers in an iconic moment that brilliantly brought the angle of James playing lesbian-tinged mind games to a head, and that led to some creative editing by WWE to censor the climactic moment for DVD purposes.
Rationale: Coming out of what was arguably the first golden age for women’s wrestling in WWE, from the tail end of the Attitude Era to about five or six years out, Mickie James was arguably the last great star of her generation — a legitimately skilled performer who could go in the ring and did fine character work in an era when WWE was starting to gravitate back toward pretty faces over skilled grapplers, and leaning into the model of hiring models and training them to wrestle, rather than recruiting top wrestlers of the day. Stratus had debuted through an outstanding angle with Trish Stratus which lasted about half a year before getting cut off when Stratus was injured.
After that initial excellent heel run, James mostly worked babyface and did a fine job with it, in particular using her athletic style to her advantage to pull strong matches out of less talented opponents. James walked away from WWE in her prime and worked mostly with TNA in the interceding years, before more recently returning first to NXT to put on an excellent match with Asuka, and is now back on SmackDown.
110. Rick Martel
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Martel was a two-time Tag Team Champion in the WWF, a contender for the Intercontinental Championship, and the iron man of the 1991 Royal Rumble with a fifty-three-minute performance.
Best moment: Martel sprayed his signature cologne — Arrogance — in Jake Roberts’s eyes to kayfabe blind him.
Rationale: After somewhat quietly winning a world title in the AWA, Martel settled nicely into the WWF’s tag scene, including partnerships with Tony Garea, Tom Zenk, and most memorably Tito Santana. His career was on the upswing when he turned heel on Santana and launched his iconic nineties gimmick as The Model.
In shoot interviews, Martel has claimed that the WWF had briefly intended to push him all the way to the main event in the 1990s, but timing in Martel’s personal life and the direction of the company never quite aligned correctly for that scenario to play out. Just the same, he carved a niche for himself in the mid-card with a highly memorable (though not entirely for positive reasons) feud with Jake Roberts, a fun heel vs. heel pretty boy clash with Shawn Michaels, and working opposite the likes of Razor Ramon and Tatanka.
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Rhyno is a (WCW) US Champion, SmackDown Tag Team Champion, and three-time Hardcore Champion in WWE.
Best moment: The InVasion didn’t do many guys many favors, but I’ll take my hat off to Rhyno delivering one of his best and highest profile gores to then-WCW champ The Rock during a promo segment to set up their match on Raw in August 2001.
Rationale: When Rhyno debuted in WWE, still fresh out of ECW, he was not just an impressive physical specimen, but fast and devastating with his Gore finisher that put other spears at the time to shame. Through Rhyno never really escaped the mid-card in WWE, he was an effective enforcer for Edge and Christian and a formidable player, particularly on the Hardcore Championship scene.
Better yet, well, well, well past his prime, Rhyno returned to WWE a decade after his initial run for a fun stint in NXT before a fun sequence playing the muscle behind and adding veteran cred to Heath Slater’s act as he vied for tag team gold and a SmackDown contract in 2016.
108. Bruno Sammartino
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Though he was the longest reigning world champ in WWE history, Sammartino’s greatest accomplishments as a wrestler undoubtedly all occurred before the WrestleMania era, during which he was mostly a part-time legend before his estrangement with the company for a period of decades.
Best moment: Sammartino stormed the ring to help out his son in fending off Brutus Beefcake and Johnny Valiant, to a massive pop at the original WrestleMania.
Rationale: It’s a catch-22 to try to rank Bruno Sammartino on a countdown like this. He’s an all-time legend, whose undeniably one of the top ten most celebrated and important stars in WWE (some might say he’s number one), but just the same, almost all of the work that places him in such high esteem happened well before the original WrestleMania. It feels like blasphemy to leave him off altogether, or for him to rank in a lower spot. So, he makes the cut and lands just outside the top hundred for some fun appearances, for demonstrating superior conditioning over a number of 1980s talents even when he was in his fifties, and a handful of forgotten gems like his mini-feud with Randy Savage when Ricky Steamboat was out selling a throat injury Savage had kayfabe imposed on him.
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Sable not only won a Women’s Championship, but ostensibly had the title brought back for her when she caught fire with fans in 1998.
Best moment: At a point when it would have been easy to dismiss Sable as a damsel in distress, victimized by abusive boyfriend Marc Mero and terrorized by heels Goldust and Luna, Sable stood up for herself at WrestleMania 14 when she powerbombed Luna and hit her with the TKO to win the mixed tag match for her team.
Rationale: Despite never being a polished in-ring performer, Sable was over as a sexed-up icon to the WWF’s predominantly male fan base in the early stages of the Attitude Era, and emerged from a great long-term storyline with Marc Mero as her own woman — thriving as a face, and even arguably better as an arrogant heel.
The bloom was off the rose a bit in Sable’s 2003 comeback, when she was more exposed for her lack of in-ring skill in feuds with the likes of Torrie Wilson, Stacey Keibler, and Stephanie McMahon, none of whom were equipped to carry her. Just the same, Sable goes down as an unforgettable character for a particular generation of wrestling fans.
106. Bad News Brown
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Brown was an upper-mid-carder for the duration of his WWF run and was once posed as a challenger to Hulk Hogan’s world title run.
Best moment: Brown won a twenty-man battle royal at WrestleMania 4.
Rationale: Bad News Brown was arguably ahead of his time as a badass brawler who didn’t take crap from anyone throughout 1980s WWF programming. One of my favorite Brown tropes was that he couldn’t be trusted by partners. In a series of events , he walked out on his teams at Survivor Series 1988 and 1989, besides temporarily aligning himself with Bret Hart in the WrestleMania 4 battle royal before he betrayed his new would-be friend.
With a legit judo background and a pretty sweet finisher in the Ghetto Blaster enzuiguri, Brown is the sort of guy who surely would have gotten at least one Intercontinental Championship run in an era of more volatile title booking. As it stands, the best he got was a very brief run challenging Hulk Hogan for the world title.
105. Don Muraco
Top kayfabe accomplishments: During the WrestleMania years, Muraco won a non-televised King of the Ring tournament.
Best moment: Muraco appeared in the opening match of WrestleMania 3 in front of a live audience of 93,173, teaming with Bob Orton Jr. against The Can-Am Connection.
Rationale: Long before there was The Rock, there was “The Rock” — Muraco’s nickname in the 1980s as a boulder of muscle with a tendency to run through the competition. He attained Intercontinental Championship glory twice pre-‘Mania, but never got his hands on gold again once the WrestleMania years were up and running.
Muraco started the era as a solid mid-card heel, then had a good mid-card face run in the late 1980s at which point his physique fit nicely for the steroid-heavy times.
104. The Fabulous Moolah
Top kayfabe accomplishments: During the WrestleMania years, Moolah was a three-time Women’s Champion.
Best moment: In a legendary moment, now commonly referred to as The Original Screwjob, Moolah pinned an unwilling Wendi Richter to take back the Women’s Championship and send Richter — who had been quibbling with management over money — packing for over twenty years.
Rationale: Moolah is an icon in women’s wrestling who accomplished many of her most storied feats pre-WrestleMania, including a legit decade-long reign as Women’s Champion, and a more spurious reign billed as even longer, but full chock full of unacknowledged short-term title changes. Regardless, Moolah was well established as the best of her era and, from a kayfabe perspective, quite arguably the best of all time.
As was the case for so many thing in wrestling, the advent of WrestleMania marked a turning point, and Moolah was not so dominant from that point forward, though she was still more involved in the title scene than most fans might remember, accruing three separate reigns and generally remaining the kayfabe standard bearer until Sherri Martel relieved her of the title in 1987.
Moolah gets an extra little bump for a fun second act to her career during The Attitude Era, generally appearing alongside Mae Young as two bad old biddies who refused to be pushed aside or bullied by younger stars — a run that included Moolah winning one last title at the age of 76.
103. Jimmy Snuka
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Despite his storied career earlier on, Snuka’s career during the WrestleMania years has fewer tangible milestones, though he was a corner man for the original WrestleMania main event.
Best moment: No doubt Snuka’s best moments came pre-‘Mania (I’d naturally give the nod to one of his leaps off the top of a steel cage in MSG if they happened within the time period I’m evaluation), so in lieu of those I’m going with a bit of a cop out of a mark out nostalgia moment — Snuka duking it out with Roddy Piper, back in MSG at the 2008 Royal Rumble.
Rationale: Snuka was a legit main event act for years pre-‘Mania, but the specter of maybe having murdered his girlfriend in 1983, besides the meteoric rise of Hulk Hogan pushed him to the background in the early days of ‘Mania, still an icon, but one scarcely used in high profile situations. Snuka returned to the fold in 1989 and hung around for three years as a super high profile jobber to the stars, effectively putting over a variety of young talents, perhaps most notably The Undertaker in the match that started The Dead Man’s undefeated streak at WrestleMania.
Top kayfabe accomplishments: R-Truth is a former US Champ, two-time Hardcore Champion, and one-time champ. He briefly entered the world title picture opposite John Cena.
Best moment: As one half of The Awesome Truth, paired with The Miz, R-Truth main evented Survivor Series 2011 opposite the formidable team of The Rock and John Cena.
Rationale: For a guy who never quite escaped the mid-card/tag scene, and who looks young for a man in his mid-forties, it can be a constant source of surprise to realize that R-Truth has about twelve years of WWE main roster experience, including a run that dates back to the Attitude Era. He quietly assembled a solid body of work including a brief stint as a fringe main event heel opposite John Cena, The Rock, and John Morrison, and for teaming with The Miz, Kofi Kingston, and The Road Dogg (and now Goldust). Otherwise, he spent most of his residency as a solid mid-card act, including plenty of time in the revolving door of feuding with guy like Dolph Ziggler and Miz.
For flickers of success, maintaining his excellence, and even reinventing himself in two distinct high profile gimmicks (rapper and crazy dude) Truth lands just outside the top 100.
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Crush was a Tag Team Champion.
Best moment: Crush turned heel with a vicious attack on Randy Savage that was particularly brutal for its time and ultimately set them on a collision course for WrestleMania 10.
Rationale: In looking back, it’s startling to think that Crush reached his kayfabe peak in terms of championship glory under his initial gimmick, the third man in Demolition as Ax transitioned out of a full-time schedule. He’d go on to more recognizable, memorable work as a Hawai’in do-gooder, later as Mr. Fuji’s protégé, after that a key part of the gang wars angle, and finally for a farewell lap as half of Kronik — a successful team from WCW that jobbed out to The Brothers of Destruction.
Still, if we look at Crush’s singles work, a lot of it was solid stuff. He was over as a face big man, and it wouldn’t have been that hard to imagine him climbing a bit higher as a more serious challenger to Yokozuna. Similarly, as a heel, he was reasonably over and effective but never really recaptured his momentum after losing to Randy Savage at WrestleMania. The gang war angle never really emerged from the midcard, but Crush leading The Disciples of Apocalypse was a nice nod to his status as an established veteran.
100. Scott Steiner
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Scott Steiner was a two-time Tag Team Champion in the WWF, and was briefly the top contender for the World Heavyweight Championship.
Best moment: Steiner’s one of the many guy who had so many moments that were so much better outside WWE, but for the purposes of this countdown, I’ll give it to him his first night back in WWE after WCW closed, appearing in Madison Square Garden at Survivor Series to annihilate heels Matt Hardy and Chris Nowinski.
Rationale: There are different versions of Scott Steiner, and the two key ones get captured in their purest relief in his two WWE tenures. The first time around, from 1992 to 1994, saw Steiner as an exceptional young athlete — not much of a talker, but a truly amazing physical specimen for his combination of power, athleticism, and technical expertise. The second time around, almost exactly a decade later, Steiner was a skilled talker but a shell of the athlete he once was. Sure, he was still strong, but he got blown up and didn’t offer any indication of the athleticism he would bust out again years later in TNA.
As half of the Steiner Brothers, Scott was part of one of the greatest tag teams in WWF history, albeit for only a couple years — heck, if they had hung around for five, I could easily see him climbing ten-to-twenty places in this countdown. As Big Poppa Pump, the singles star who eventually found himself teaming with Test? The work just wasn’t good, and without the long leash WCW had afforded him and those last vestiges of in-ring game he demonstrated as a WCW main eventer and later in TNA, he was a high profile flop of a signing — a cautionary tale when it came to bringing WCW talents into the fold and quite possibly a contributor to why WWE has booked Goldberg so protectively, in such short matches during his current run.
99. Shelton Benjamin
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Benjamin is a three-time Intercontinental Champion, one-time US Champion, and two-time Tag Team Champion in WWE.
Best moment: Upon debuting on Raw as a singles wrestler, Benjamin promptly pinned Triple H clean in a major upset.
Rationale: Shelton Benjamin is wildly athletic, with decent size and a good look. There was a time when folks took him seriously as someone who might break through to the main event, particularly in the 2004 run when he defeated Triple H, beat Chris Jericho for the Intercontinental Championship. Whether it was limited mic skills, the awful run in which his kayfabe mother played his manager, or arbitrary booking calls, he never quite broke through at that level.
Just the same, Benjamin was a highly capable talent, rumored to return any time now to the WWE ranks, and while there’s every indication his time as a potential main eventer has long since passed, I fully expect he could return to his old spot as a solid, entertaining mid-card act, and that rare athletic specimen who can hang with Kofi Kingston for crazy spots in a ladder match environment or similar. Add on several steady years of experience in Japan and on the indies, and he could build upon his legacy — maybe even move up a few places in a countdown like this — putting over younger mid-carders or working the tag scene.
98. The Road Dogg
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Road Dogg was a six-time tag champ, and one-time Hardcore Champion in WWE.
Best moment: I’ll be the first to admit this is a weird pick, but I’m going to give it to Road Dogg’s appearance at WrestleMania 30. Though his team got squashed, and though he was well past his prime, this was the lone time he got to deliver his positively iconic entrance on the microphone in front of a stadium crowd, and it’s particularly noteworthy that the crowd was game to sing along a decade-and-a-half after The Road Dogg’s prime.
Rationale: Brian Armstrong could easily have gone down as a forgotten, underwhelming link of the famed Armstrong clan, after legit legend, his father, Bullet Bob Armstrong, and his older, more athletic, and generally more over brother, WCW jobber to the stars Brad Armstrong. His early work in the WWF, playing Jeff Jarrett’s roadie didn’t exactly promise much greater success, but when he evolved into the Road Dogg, particularly as half of The New Age Outlaws with Billy Gunn, and then part of DX, his personality and mic skills shone through. While he was a competent enough worker in the ring, he didn’t have any great in-ring performances to his name. Still, call out “Oh you didn’t know?” at a wrestling show anywhere, twenty years after The Road Dogg’s prime and you’re sure to hear a call back that, yes indeed, “your ass better call somebody.”
So, in a business that’s largely about showmanship, and in the promotion that placed the greatest emphasis on that element of the business, The Road Dogg finds his proper place as an iconic character with a unique gift of gab that not only compensated for but outshone his limitations in the ring to arrive as a legend.
97. Wade Barrett
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Barrett is a five-time Intercontinental Champion and won the King of the Ring tournament.
Best moment: Barrett made his main roster debut leading the new Nexus stable of NXT graduates in decimating John Cena and tearing apart the ringside area, early summer 2010.
Rationale: Wade Barrett is one of those guys who probably should have been a main event mainstay, but got sidetracked by a combination of bad booking and ill-timed injuries. His size, look, and talking abilities promised great things, but when his first big push, heading up The Nexus, got neutered when John Cena and company beat them at SummerSlam 2010 — culminating with Cena overcoming the odds and making Barrett tap at the end of the match — it was a sign of things to come. While Barrett would occasionally get the upper hand over Cena in the months to follow, Cena won the feud decisively, and Barrett was relegated to the mid-card ever after, trading wins with other guys of similar stature, reinventing himself with new gimmicks (bare-knuckled brawler, Bad News Barrett) only to get injured or cut off trading victories with lesser talents before he ever made much headway.
After his final run, with the mostly directionless League of Nations, Barrett opted not to re-sign with WWE, a choice that all indications suggest had more to do with wanting his creative freedom than being pushed out the door. Maybe he’ll be back one day, but in the meantime, I’m hoping he’ll get to do some memorable things on the indy scene.
96. Alundra Blayze
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Blayze was a three-time Women’s Champion in the WWF.
Best moment: After an epic by the WWF’s women standards of the day, Blayze pinned Bull Nakano to successfully defend her Women’s Championship at SummerSlam 1994.
Rationale: This was a very tough placement. Based on in-ring talent and wrestling smarts, there’s a part of me that would like to rank Blayze as the best female performer in WWE history. She was hyper-athletic, a razor sharp worker, and carried the women’s division for a year and half or so in the mid-1990s. The troubles are that Blayze was only had that year and a half to make her case, and only had so much to work with — working repetitive feuds with a small set of challengers, and rarely with any meaningful storyline to accompany the ring work. While there were worse times, women’s wrestling simply wasn’t a priority in WWF programming at the time.
So, Blayze lands as high as I can justify for her terrific efforts at the time, with the sad addition that, given the state of women’s wrestling in general in her era, she never had the chance to do much better Stateside, and probably did her best work of all in Japan, in matches that are largely lost to the American consciousness.
95. Jim Duggan
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Jim Duggan won the original Royal Rumble.
Best moment: Call it over the top, call it masterful, at SummerSlam 1989, Duggan arguably represented more gimmicks simultaneously than any man had before or since, carrying his trademark two by four, wearing kingly regalia, and dawning a Demolition mask to show unity with his six-man tag team partners. Oh, and he also picked up the win for his team.
Rationale: Duggan is a true icon, but came from an era when there were several super memorable characters played by highly competent performers, who nonetheless went relatively undecorated. Yes, Duggan won the original Royal Rumble, but at that time it was a free TV, twenty-man experiment with no real stakes attached to it, and thus did little more than shore up Duggan’s place as an upper mid-card face.
Duggan was never a technical wizard, but was a consistently entertaining brawler who ultimately slipped into the relatively generic gimmick of being super patriotic, but nonetheless played his part well if for no other reason than he looked like the average joe, prototypical wrestling fan, with an extra hundred pounds on him to fit the WWE landscape. He was a steady face for the length of his tenure, and ultimately put the patriot gimmick to good use in putting over the rising Yokozuna.
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Finlay was a United States Champion.
Best moment: Finlay got the spotlight by opening WrestleMania 24, storming the ring with sidekick Hornswoggle beside him to engage in a fun, stiff brawl with JBL.
Rationale: Finlay had a long, successful career before he came to WWE, and there’s no denying his best years, physically, were behind him by the time he made it to the promotion. Just the same, he represented a stiff, old school style that played well to hardcore fans whether he was working as a hard-nosed enforcer backing King Booker, or as an honorable veteran standing up to bully heels as a face late in his time with WWE.
Finlay’s greatest contributions to the WWE landscape ultimately came behind the scenes, where he is credited for being an influential trainer, and most particularly important in readying female talent for prime time during The Attitude Era. That accomplishment is largely inapplicable to his placement in this countdown, but just the same worth mentioning given the success of women’s wrestling in that era, which arguably paved the way for the contemporary women’s movement in WWE.
93. Jeff Jarrett
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Jarrett is a six-time Intercontinental Champion, who won the European and Tag Team Championships once each in WWE.
Best moment: Super oddball pick, but as the son of a promoter, a part of multiple worked shoot angles in WCW, and co-owner of TNA where he enjoyed his greatest successes, Jarrett’s career has largely been defined by working the boundary between kayfabe and reality. So, I’m giving it to a moment in the WWF that was as real as could be — tearful Jarrett mourning the loss of his dear friend and on-screen tag team partner Owen Hart in memorably lamenting “in this business, you make a lot of acquaintances, but very few friends. Owen was one of those friends.” (On a less somber note, my second choice was his original lip-synced performance of “With My Baby Tonight” under his country music singer gimmick.)
Rationale: Jeff Jarrett was a solid worker and a solid talker and there’s a very real argument that he was never more aptly used than in the WWF. For in the WWF, Jarrett was a mainstay on the Intercontinental Championship scene and a good contributor to the tag division for a few short spells. He had memorable gimmicks that fit their time perfectly — a country music singer during the cartoonish occupational gimmick era; a misogynist jerk during the Attitude Era. While he broached the upper card here and there, it’s fair enough that he didn’t eclipse the main event picture there the way he ultimately did in WCW and TNA.
Jarrett would disagree.
There are a lot of rumors about Jarrett — about him holding up management for money, about Steve Austin refusing to engage in a program with him. I don’t know that we’ll ever have a full, impartial story on these matters, but the fact remains that he was a controversial figure who bounced between WCW and the WWF when they were in the thick of competition with each other, and did so consistently for his own gain in terms of standing on the card (and little doubt financially). When the WWF bought out WCW, he could see the writing wall, and it’s a testament to the man that he didn’t retire or settle for a roaming indy career, but rather became a wrestling entrepreneur, co-founding TNA, then GFW, before only recently making his return to TNA management again.
92. Bobby Lashley
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Lashley is a two-time WWE ECW Champion and one-time United States Champion.
Best moment: Lashley waged war with John Cena in a forgotten gem of a face vs. face main event at Great American Bash 2007.
Rationale: Lashley was physically gifted — a muscle-bound monster who was also very athletic and came to wrestling with an amateur wrestling pedigree. He was immediately booked as an upper card force, transitioned to become the face of ECW for a time, and wound up feuding with John Cena briefly in what looked to be a preview of things to come. Neither Lashley nor WWE has, to my knowledge, can public about the reasons for his departure, but after a few months out due to injury, he left the company to pursue MMA and a decorated tenure with TNA.
So, we’ll never know how good Lashley might have been in WWE given more time, and particularly given the chance at a heel run (as his time with TNA has, to a point, suggested, the combination of his size and technical skills make him pretty excellent in that role). Just the same, for the two years he did have, he enjoyed kayfabe success and showed signs that he could grow from a good to a great WWE worker.
91. Billy Gunn
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Gunn was a tag team specialist, winning eleven tag titles with three different partners, and notably won that first tag title in 1995, and the most recent one nineteen years later. Gunn also won a King of the Ring tournament, Intercontinental Championship, and two Hardcore Championships.
Best moment: Gunn won the 1999 King of the Ring tournament, last defeating former ally X-Pac in the Finals — the pinnacle of Gunn’s biggest singles push.
Rationale: Billy Gunn was super athletic and powerful with a great look and reasonable charisma. Unfortunately, he never quite clicked enough or at the right time to truly make the most of his potential, peaking when he won the King of the Ring tournament and subsequently had a one-on-one feud with The Rock.
Though he never quite arrived as a main event-level singles star, Gunn has a legit claim to being the most successful tag team wrestler in WWE history, most notably as the in-ring workhorse of the celebrated New Age Outlaws duo that helped DX get over on such a huge level, but also in very good teams with Bart Gunn and Chuck Palumbo, not to mention not as great ones with The Big Show and Hardcore Holly.
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Haku was a one-time Tag Team Champion.
Best moment: Haku returned the WWF in a surprisingly high profile surprise spot at the 2001 Royal Rumble. While he benefited from a very late entry, he nonetheless made it to the late stages of the match only to be eliminated by no lesser star than eventual winner, Steve Austin.
Rationale: Legend suggests that Haku is one of wrestling’s all-time greatest real-life bad asses — the kind of guy you did not want to mess with, who may or may not have at one point torn out somebody’s eye during a bar fight. On screen, his early work in WCW under the Meng character approximated that bad-ass persona, but in the WWF, he was a highly capable worker, but never more than upper mid-card threat. In his first WWF run, he was mostly a tag guy, first as half of The Islanders with Tama, and later as the workhorse on a team with broken down megastar Andre the Giant (with a singles run that included a brief time as King in between). At the tail end of the Attitude Era, Haku returned as a more monstrous heel, most memorably teaming with Rikishi against The Brothers of Destruction.
While Haku was not that highly decorated, he nonetheless had seven solid years as a mid-card heel during two very different successful eras. (Random side brainstorm: Had the WWF tried something like Brawl For All earlier or later as vehicle for Haku to become a main eventer rather than Steve Williams, it makes you wonder how history might have changed.)
89. Cody Rhodes
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Rhodes is a two-time Intercontinental Champion, and six-time tag champ in WWE. He had a PPV main event match at Hell in a Cell 2009, teaming with Ted Dibiase Jr. against DX.
Best moment: Rhodes pinned Rey Mysterio in a forgotten gem of a match at WrestleMania 27, that may not have blown off their rivalry, but stood out as a star-making moment for the ascendant Rhodes.
Rationale: Rarely has WWE had a star who more persistently seemed on the cusp of great things (without actually getting there) than Cody Rhodes. Whether it was his initial tag run when he won over Hardcore Holly’s respect, working as part of the Legacy stable, playing Dashing or the follow up super villain gimmick, turning face to go up against The Shield and The Authority, or losing his mind and embracing the Stardust character, Rhodes made every identity WWE gave him work, and each turn in his personality looked as though it might lead to bigger things for him.
WWE never quite pulled the trigger, though. While Rhodes got the best of Mysterio at WrestleMania 27, and, while teaming with Goldust, he was one of the very, very few guys to get the upper hand on The Shield in the thick of their run as a unit, he peaked in the upper mid-card, never getting the better of long-time frenemy and mentor Randy Orton, or getting the chance to be more than a henchman in a main event angle. While I get that his small frame made him a less than ideal fit for the main event scene from the WWE brass’s perspective, I am among those fans who feel WWE missed the boat on a great talker and in-ring worker, who eventually walked away out of frustration to make the most of his gifts on the independent scene.
88. John Morrison
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Morrison was a WWE ECW Champion, two-time Intercontinental Champion, and five-time tag champ in WWE. He was twice, briefly, in the world title picture.
Best moment: Morrison beat Sheamus in a very good number one contender’s Ladder Match at TLC 2010. The match capped a year of climbing the more metaphorical ladder to push up against the main event glass ceiling, and suggested bigger things ahead.
Rationale: Morrison grew tremendously over the course of his WWE career, from Tough Enough winner to Eric Bischoff’s sidekick, to a very good tag team with Joey Mercury, to a run atop WWE’s version of ECW as it began to rebrand to a more developmental model. From there, Morrison was on to an even better tag team with The Miz, followed by a lengthy upper mid-card face run in which he was the Royal Rumble’s favorite spot monkey before Kofi Kingston, and took up residence on the fringes of the main event toward the end of his run.
While Morrison’s stellar work, particularly as a heel in Lucha Underground, has demonstrated all of his potential that went untapped in WWE. Just the same, taking his WWE work in a vacuum, he goes down as an excellent role player who’s still in plenty good shape and standing that he might be back one day, and could easily slide back into more or less the same spot.
Top kayfabe accomplishments: X-Pac was a two-time European Champion, two-time Light Heavyweight Champion, one-time Cruiserweight Champion, and four-time Tag Team Champion.
Best moment: While he had some quite good ones to follow, I’m giving it to his original star turn as The 1–2–3 Kid, going from a new jobber to the guy who pinned Razor Ramon clean on Raw out of nowhere to launch his own character, not to mention kick start an important face turn for Ramon.
Rationale: At a time before the WWF had a Cruiserweight or Light Heavyweight division, The 1–2–3 Kid was an irresistible aerial and martial artist, not to mention an all-time great underdog. The run to follow included brilliant work opposite Ramon, an excellent title match with Bret Hart, and way ahead of tier time match ups with Hakushi. It all led to an ill-advised heel turn that miscast Kid for the end of that run, but did pave the way for the edgier character he’d play in WCW and upon his return to the WWF as X-Pac.
While X-Pac was, in general, as good if not a better worker than he’d been earlier, and a fun part of the DX stable, the character arguably wore thin when the WWF booked him as competitive with Kane and he began garnering what a segment of smart fans return to as X-Pac Heat — not just riling up the crowd as a villain, but the kind of worker fans actively wanted off their TV because they didn’t love to hate him, they just actually hated him. Matters got little better when he headed up his own mid-card stable, X-Factor.
So, X-Pac is that kind of wrestler who goes down as talented, but with the asterisk that he got over-exposed at a certain point. While he was never made it to the main event level, he was a groundbreaker who arguably paved the way the way for talents of similar size and frame to get shots on the main roster, and to climb higher than he did.
86. Irwin R. Schyster
Top kayfabe accomplishments: IRS was a five-time Tag Team Champion.
Best moment: Schyster was among a cavalcade of heels who came to Yokozuna’s aid in the effort to beat The Undertaker at Survivor Series 1994. While everybody else got turned back by ringside enforcer Chuck Norris, Schyster, was the lone bad guy to slip through the cracks and briefly incapacitate ‘Taker, thus also setting himself up as the next one-on-one rival for The Dead Man, arguably the peak of Schyster’s singles career.
Rationale: IRS is such an oddity. The worker behind the gimmick, Mike Rotunda, was pretty excellent, but came of age in the thick of occupational gimmick era, and thus wound up with the cheapest of cheap heat gimmicks as a tax man. It’s a testament to IRS’s skills as a worker and talker that he managed to get over as a mid-carder and as a very successful tag wrestler, particularly alongside Ted Dibiase (though he also won tag gold with Barry Windham earlier in his career).
Here’s the nuttiest part of all — while we might be able to take Schyster more seriously without the IRS gimmick, it also might be the over the top character, and particular wrestling in a collared shirt and suspenders that made him so memorable for a generation of fans, rather than a guy who might have wound up a mostly forgotten mechanic.
85. Lex Luger
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Luger accomplished many more tangible honors outside of WWE, but for the purposes of this countdown, he was Royal Rumble co-winner and arguably the face of the WWF for the better part of a year from summer 1993 to spring 1994.
Best moment: Luger showed up aboard the USS Intrepid and, character consistency be darned, did what no other WWF Superstar could do when he body slammed Yokozuna and took on a patriotic new gimmick that shot him straight into the main event.
Rationale: Few guys have ever had the physique or sheer power of Lex Luger, and thus he got all manner of opportunities over the course of his wrestling career despite, by most account, never being an especially good in-ring worker. In the WWF, that meant an immediate push as the upper card heel Narcissist, followed by a more memorable main event push as an All-American hero.
The patriot push was successful enough in the early going, but a combination Luger never getting over at close to the Hulk Hogan levels the WWF brass seemed to hope he would, plus never really delivering in big match situations, meant that the push fizzled before it ever paid off in Luger winning the strap, as Bret Hart got reinserted as top face. From there on, Luger remained an over upper mid-carder, feuding with Ted Dibiase’s Million Dollar Corporation, then joining Davey Boy Smith for in the Allied Powers tag team that looked to be going places (particularly to rival the newly branded Owen Hart and Yokozuna team), only to meet a premature conclusion with Luger defected to WCW to kick start the Monday Night Wars.
Luger only lasted in the WWF for two and a half years, but made the most of that time, including three consecutive main event appearances, all of them victories, and all the more impressive for happening in era when there were only far fewer PPVs on the calendar.
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Umaga was a two-time Intercontinental Champion.
Best moment: At a time when there were questions about each man’s merits as in-ring workers, Umaga put on a simply fantastic Last Man Standing Match with John Cena at Royal Rumble 2007.
Rationale: Umaga followed in a tradition of agile, stiff Samoan big men who justifiably got had solid upper card runs, including a stint in the main event. After a lukewarm run as half of the Three Minute Warning tag team, for Umaga, the big highlights were his program with John Cena, which was far better from an in-ring perspective than anyone expected it to be — particularly when Cena was under profound scrutiny as a worker — and by serving as Mr. McMahon’s proxy in his WrestleMania 23 feud with Donald Trump and Bobby Lashley.
As it would turn out, Umaga had hit his career peak by spring 2007. He’d hang around with McMahon to feud with Lashley on the ECW brand, and being an imposing force in the Intercontinental title scene. Ultimately, though, he succumbed to injury, followed by wellness policy issues that took him out of the spotlight, and then out of WWE altogether before he met an untimely death at only thirty-six years old, purportedly as a result of drug use.
While the savage gimmick under which he’s best remembered feels like a bit of an anachronism, Umaga nonetheless worked the character as well as anyone, and goes down as a very good performer who probably could have had much more to give had real life not gotten in the way.
83. Sycho [sic] Sid
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Sid was a two-time WWF Champion and main evented WrestleMania twice.
Best moment: At Survivor Series 1996, Sid hit Shawn Michaels with a video camera, then powerbombed him to go from being one of the most permanent interpromotional main eventers to never win a world title to removing the asterisk, finally winning the top prize in the business.
Rationale: Sid’s legacy is super strange. If you were to create the prototype for a wrestler with the ideal look, and look alone, I’d argue Sid edges out Brock Lesnar as the best of the best — tall and super jacked with a look that could pass for handsome as a face and work all the better as crazed as a heel.
The trouble? Sid was never a particular great worker, and to make matters worse he had a reputation for a bad attitude and somehow getting into a dangerous hotel fight with well-respected Arn Anderson that included Anderson getting stabbed multiple times with scissors. (There was a rumor he timed “injuries” to play summer softball, but that’s been widely refuted, including by Sid himself explaining that he did play some softball while out for injury, but that in the most high profile case, he was actually doing it as a favor to his WCW employers.)
Still, particularly as a child of the 1980s and1990s, I can remember the degree to which Sid’s look alone won me over to his work in WCW, and all the more so in the WWF that catered all the better to musclemen with limited in-ring skills. At the end of the day, Sid was an iconic main event level player, if not the kind of guy we can look back at that fondly from a backstage perspective or as a worker.
82. Finn Balor
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Finn Balor was the first WWE Universal Champion.
Best moment: Balor pinned Seth Rollins clean at SummerSlam 2016 to win the WWE Universal Championship.
Rationale: By just about any logic or sense of justice, Balor will climb at least twenty-to-thirty spots on this countdown in time, and probably a fair bit higher than that, even. He demarks that incredibly rare nexus of a talented performer respected and beloved by hardcore fans, while also appealing enough to the powers that be to get pushed straight to the moon — hence spending most of his time in NXT as the champ, and moving on to win a main roster world title little more than a month after he was drafted to the big stage.
Balor is wildly charismatic — cool in his everyday leather jacket persona, simultaneously creepy and infectious in the demon character he breaks out for big shows. Moreover he’s technically sound, agile, tough worker with all the potential in the world to thrive as a main event for years to come.
For now, Balor dips all the way down to the eighties through no fault of his own but on account of remaining an unproven commodity on the main roster. Yes, he had a sensational first month, but in the same match he captured the Universal Championship, he got injured, too, and was promptly out of action for the six months and counting to follow. If he returns at the level he left off on — both in terms of performance and management’s push — the sky is the limit for Balor.
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Chyna was a two-time Intercontinental Champion and the only woman to hold that title to date. She was also the first woman to perform alongside men in the Royal Rumble and the King of the Ring tournament. She was a Women’s Champion once, too.
Best moment: Chyna defeated arch-rival, misogynist (character) Jeff Jarrett at No Mercy 1999 to win the Intercontinental Championship.
Rationale: Whether we should accept Chyna as influential or an anomaly remains a question to this day, as WWE has not meaningfully revisited intergender wrestling since her run. To be fair, there are advertiser and business partner concerns that may have stunted that avenue for WWE, and the point that there are very few women could believably fill the Chyna spot going head-to-head with male opponents. At six-feet tall and 180 pounds, not to mention that she was jacked to the gills, Chyna fit into the men’s landscape more readily than she ever did the female ranks, and had the charisma and athleticism, if not the technical skill to succeed in that position.
By some accounts — particularly Chris Jericho in his books — Chyna wasn’t much of a worker, but she remains a uniquely memorable enough act, not to mention a mid-card champion, and thus earns this spot.
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Rusev is a two-time US Champion.
Best moment: Rusev defeated Sheamus with The Accolade to win his first hardware in WWE in an odd specially broadcast, post-Raw, in the early days of the WWE Network.
Rationale: Rusev represents a certain evolution in pro wrestling, he’s a big man from abroad, with some representational confusion (openly from Bulgaria, but still kind of representing Russia as often as not during his run). The guy doesn’t just lean upon cheap nationalistic heat, though, but rather is himself a heck of a worker — fast, hardworking, and heated in his work (check that chain-assisted Accolade on Roman Reigns at Hell in a Cell 2016).
If there’s justice, Rusev will be a world champion at some point in his career and he’s precisely the type of bubble talent who could benefit from the brand split and two world titles being around for the taking. Just the same, I suspect he’ll need a face turn, or to be the beneficiary of injuries to some of his contemporaries to get that shot in the immediate future.
79. Shane McMahon
Top kayfabe accomplishments: McMahon won a European Championship and a Hardcore Championship.
Best moment: McMahon debuted his signature Coast to Coast finisher by leaping across the ring to dropkick a trashcan into his father’s face to pick up the win in what was arguably the best pure sports entertainment match of all time at WrestleMania 17. (Moment of clarification, I apply the “best pure sports entertainment match” title to denote that from a purist’s perspective, the match was no good, but in terms of fantastical shenanigans unique to pro wrestling storytelling, it was a wildly entertaining spectacle).
Rationale: From the late 1990s to early 2000s, Shane McMahon built a legend for himself among wrestling fans as a dare devil who jumped and/or took bumps off of high things with every bit the reckless abandon of Jeff Hardy, besides being an entertaining on-air personality. The character began to wear thin as Attitude gave way to the Invasion, and Shane-O-Mac returned to team up with this father in a middling feud with DX.
But then he went away.
From 2009 to 2016 Shane legit left WWE to pursue his own business ventures, and in so doing shored up his legacy for the sheer fact that he left before he fully wore out his welcome (not to mention that he did his best work when the most eyes were on the product in the Attitude Era). He became something a folk hero, only to make a phenomenally satisfying surprise return on Raw — after which he quickly lost some of his luster with a middling ‘Mania match with The Undertaker, followed by forgettable authority figure work on SmackDown.
For all of his limitations, Shane was charismatic, and justifiably memorable for sharing his father’s willingness to absorb ridiculous physical punishment despite having absolutely no need to in order to keep his spot in WWE.
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Lita was a four-time WWE Women’s Champion.
Best moment: In the second women’s main event of Raw, Lita pinned her arch-rival Trish Stratus to win back the Women’s Championship (Side note: Lita won the firs women’s main event of Raw, too, in a less oft discussed route of Stephanie McMahon-Helmesley, also to win the Women’s Championship.)
Rationale: In the Attitude Era, WWE’s first stab at taking women’s wrestling more seriously, Trish Stratus was the face of the division and de facto champion, and Lita was her top rival, all the more special because, contrary to Stratus as great wrestler who looked like a traditional centerfold model, Lita was alternative — tattooed up with dyed red hair and baggy pants. She got over as part of Team Extreme with the Hardys, before turning heel to pair with Edge and enter a more sultry stage for the last couple years of her WWE in-ring career. With the aid of real-life drama around Matt Hardy and Edge, and Edge providing a perfect kayfabe complement to her as the Rated R Superstar, Lita was arguably even more successful then.
While Lita wasn’t as polished of an in-ring performer as some of today’s top female talents, her aerial attack in particular was fresh and innovative for its day, and paired with her character work, places her squarely among WWE’s top female stars of all time.
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Cesaro is a one-time United States Champion and two-time tag champ. He won the inaugural Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal.
Best moment: In the aforementioned ATGM Battle Royal, Cesaro lifted The Big Show and body slammed him over the top rope for the final elimination in a moment that simultaneously spotlighted the Swiss Superman’s strength in a way WWE never quite had before, and suggested WWE might be willing to take him seriously as an upper card threat.
Rationale: Cesaro may be the most gifted athlete of his generation — insanely strong, extraordinarily athletic, and technically savvy. Remember that match when he delivered a top-rope hurricanrana, a giant swing, and picture-perfect Sharpshooter? You ought to, because there are several — these are not special-occasion sequences but rather typical offense for the guy. He started on the main roster as an overwhelming heel force. Later, he was an irresistible face.
And yet, for all his obvious talents and how over he is with a significant segment of the fans, Cesaro has yet to get the big push, and thus has remained locked in mid-card purgatory for the overwhelming majority of his tenure. His current run with Sheamus suggests the possibility of bigger things, for unlike Cesaro’s underachieving pairing with fellow main event reject Jack Swagger, and his shoot underdog team with Tyson Kidd, with Sheamus, Cesaro has a guy of equal charisma and a better kayfabe career track record to riff off of and work WWE’s beloved partners who just can’t get along angle with. Here’s hoping the guys stay healthy and stay together for long enough for each man to get the most out of the team — for Sheamus to stay interesting and relevant, and for Cesaro to glean all the cred he can out of this tag team and just maybe graduate to a higher point in the card from this point forward.
For his gifts and for continually demonstrating them over nearly five years, Cesaro lands this high on the countdown, but he’s locked out of the top seventy-five until he and WWE can work together to realize more of his clear potential.
76. King Kong Bundy
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Bundy main evented WrestleMania 2.
Best moment: Bundy squashed SD Jones at the original WrestleMania in seconds.
Rationale: Even before the WrestleMania years, the WWF was a “big man’s territory” in which top stars tended to be taller, more muscular, or heavier. Bundy was the embodiment of this approach to wrestling, a 6’4”, 450-pound monster famous for beating opponents quickly, injuring them, and dominantly asking for a five-count on pins, rather than the traditional three, to assert his dominance.
History hasn’t been too kind to Bundy’s WWF legacy, but he’s still a memorable monster from those early WrestleMania years and particularly at ‘Mania itself where he squashed SD Jones, challenged Hulk Hogan in a steel cage, and famously participated in a mixed tag match at WrestleMania 3, with heavyweights Bundy and Hillbilly Jim teamed up with a pair of midget wrestlers each, in a match that culminated in Bundy famously slamming and dropping an elbow on Little Beaver. The moment reinforced Bundy as a serious killer of a wrestler, who operated outside the cartoonish style that the very match concept of the match seemed to invite. Bundy would depart from the WWF only to come back for a couple years in the mid-1990s, clearly past his prime, and serving as recognizable muscle for Ted Dibiase’s Million Dollar Corporation.
75. The Honky Tonk Man
Top kayfabe accomplishments: The Honky Tonk Man was an Intercontinental Champion, and still, nearly thirty years later, holds the record for longest continuous reign of all time.
Best moment: The Honky Tonk Man paid off 454 days of being a supremely obnoxious heel champ by putting over The Ultimate Warrior in a squash match at SummerSlam 1988.
Rationale: No, The Honky Tonk Man was never an exceptional worker. His gimmick was silly and derivative. The thing is, a talent this average, with a chicken shit heel character to go with it, was absolutely maddening holding one of the top singles titles in all of wrestling for well over a year, surviving challenges not by defeating his opponents, but by cheating his way to wins, or else accepting count-out or disqualification losses that would nonetheless let him retain his title.
It’s a classic traditional wrestling philosophy that the money is in the chase. While The Honky Tonk Man never had anything close to Ric Flair’s wrestling chops, he thrived for similar reasons as an easy-to-hate heel who fans were all too eager to watch in the interest of seeing him get his comeuppance. Add onto that his iconic habit of smashing acoustic guitars over rivals’ heads and you have a memorable talent in wrestling history.
74. Trish Stratus
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Stratus is a seven-time WWE Women’s Champion and one-time Hardcore Champion.
Best moment: Stratus Sharpshootered arch-rival Lita into submission to win her last match as a full-time wrestler to retire as champion in front of her hometown crowd in Toronto.
Rationale: While the cast of Charlotte, Sasha Banks, Becky Lynch, and company threaten to obscure Stratus’s legacy, she retains her place in history at the forefront of a cast of strong female performers from the Attitude Era and years to immediately follow, highlighted by good-to-great rivalries with Lita, Mickie James, Victoria, and Jazz.
For better or worse, Stratus represented a paradigm that pervaded WWE’s practices around female performers for years to follow — hiring beautiful women with the intention of training them on the wrestling part. Without Stratus’s talent or Finlay’s training, the formula didn’t work so well. Just the same, Stratus herself stands out as a skilled in-ring performer and talker, who also, impressed with one-off returns over the years to follow, remarkably still fit and ready to perform despite years off in between bouts.
73. Dusty Rhodes
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Rhodes, remarkably, got over as one of the top faces of his day, including high profile feuds with Randy Savage and Ted Dibiase, whilst clad in yellow polka dot attire.
Best moment: Rhodes had his boys’ back as they collectively cut the promo of a lifetime (spotlighting Cody Rhodes, as the Dusty passed the torch to him) before challenging The Shield for the tag titles at Battleground 2013.
Rationale: I’ve said it many times already, but, again, in an effort to stem the tide of angry commenters, this is a WWE-exclusive countdown, and only runs from 1985 on. Add in Rhodes’s work from Jim Crockett Promotions, and other territories before that, and he’s an easy top twenty pick. Under the WWE banner, however, Rhodes was always more important off camera than on, as a mentor and creative mind after he’d retired from full-time wrestling.
Still, Rhodes did have his moments as a WWF superstar. From 1989 to 1991, he quite arguably stood behind only Hulk Hogan and The Ultimate Warrior as top face in the company in a run that culminated in introducing his son Dustin on the national stage. Dusty Rhodes was good in the ring and, as always, fantastic on the mic. He would return for periodic legends spots in the 2000s, most memorably putting over Randy Orton in his Legend Killer gimmick.
72. Kofi Kingston
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Kingston is a four-time Intercontinental Champion, three-time United States Champion, and five-time tag champ with four different teams. With his New Day compadres, he holds the record for longest WWE Tag Team Championship reign of all time.
Best moment: In the heat of a feud with Randy Orton, Kingston hit a Boom Drop on The Viper through a table, out in the stands, in the middle of Madison Square Garden.
Rationale: Kingston’s flashy style — a blend of athleticism and outlandish creativity — has put him on the map as one of the most recognizable stars of his generation, particularly for casual fans, while also putting something of a ceiling on his run, as he’s never really gotten any higher than an upper card feud in which he narrowly lost to Randy Orton, or his celebrated tag team run with New Day.
Case in point: Kingston has grown into something of a Royal Rumble icon, based on year after year of narrowly avoiding elimination via unexpected, and usually wildly athletic means. These spots tend to be a lot of fun, and are part of what fans watch for each year now at the Rumble. The thing is, no one has ever really taken Kingston seriously to actually win the Rumble. We wait for the teased elimination, cheer when he survives, then wait for the real elimination to come a couple minutes later.
At this point, nine years into his WWE tenure, it’s unlikely Kingston will ever win a world title or be a serious main eventer. Just the same, he did forge a solid mid-card legacy for himself working opposite the likes of The Miz and Dolph Ziggler, and has all the more established himself as a Hall-of-Fame worthy tag guy, between a fun run with Evan Bourne, fine place holder work alongside CM Punk and R-Truth, and finally finding himself as the anchor of The New Day — the top worker amidst Xavier Woods’s excellent mic work and Big E’s awesome physical presence.
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Rikishi was an Intercontinental Champion and two-time tag champ who briefly entered the main event scene in 2000.
Best moment: Rikishi took the big bump in the memorable six-man Hell in a Cell Match at Armageddon 2000, when The Undertaker threw him off the top of the Cell onto the back of a flatbed truck.
Rationale: Rikishi was a classic company man with deceptive longevity who hung around WWE for nearly twelve years, evolving from one half of the Headshrinkers tag team to making a difference on the streets to playing the masked Sultan, to being the enigmatic dancing big man alongside Too Cool, to working as the supersized heel who ran over Steve Austin, to retreading his most recent face character for a final mid-card run.
Rikishi is an interesting case, given his combination of size, agility, charisma, and longevity mean that on paper you’d think he could have thrived as main eventer, and I imagine if you push this run back a decade or so, he may well have been a viable challenger to Hulk Hogan during the initial Hulkamania run, or have just as ably filled the spot his cousin Yokozuna. Coming of age in the Attitude Era, he couldn’t hang with The Rock, Austin, Triple H, and Undertaker as a main event fixture, but was nonetheless a memorable and highly capable upper mid-card guy in that era and the kind of guy no one scratched their heads at when he went in the Hall of Fame.
70. Ken Shamrock
Top kayfabe accomplishments: The former legit mixed martial artist (and UFC champ) won the Intercontinental and Tag Team Championships in WWF. He also won a King of the Ring tournament.
Best moment: In what may have been a character defining moment, Shamrock utterly destroyed The Rock in their Intercontinental Championship match at WrestleMania 14, forcing him into submission with the ankle lock, before snapping and refusing to release the hold, thus resulting in his disqualification and no title win.
Rationale: In the early stages of The Attitude Era, Ken Shamrock was a defining character. First of all, his real-life mixed martial arts background lent an immediate legitimacy to the character and by extension the WWF as a whole as it transitioned from more cartoonish storytelling to a more serious, adult-oriented product. Secondarily, Shamrock’s propensity toward violence — particularly when he snapped and started breaking people’s ankles and tossing anyone who dared intervene with overhead belly-to-belly suplexes — was both entertaining and a fit for fans thirsty for carnage.
Shamrock probably could have been a world champion for how over and skilled he was, but his rise coincided with those of Steve Austin and The Rock (and to a lesser extent Triple H). Though he got the push of a King of the Ring tournament win, before long he got lost in the shuffle as part of The Corporation, then part of The Union before departing from the WWF
69. Davey Boy Smith
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Smith was an Intercontinental Champion, two-time (and first) European Champion, two-time Hardcore Champion, and two-time WWF Tag Team Champion who challenged for the WWF Championship on multiple occasions during multiple different runs.
Best moment: Smith pinned Bret Hart to win the Intercontinental Championship in front of 80,000 of his countrymen in the main event of SummerSlam 1992.
Rationale: As the 1980s gave way to the 1990s, Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels emerged from the tag ranks to become bona fide stars and eventual legends in the singles ranks, holding the world title, headlining WrestleManias, and generally proving themselves as leaders of the New Generation that bridged the gap between Hulkamania and Attitude.
And then there was Davey Boy Smith.
Smith, the bigger, younger British Bulldog, looked to ascend alongside these top two and particularly in defeating Bret Hart in the main event of SummerSlam 1992 seemed on even pacing with them. No, his in ring skills were never as great as his contemporaries, but he compensated with the muscle-man look the WWF had traditionally favored. In late 1992, he dropped the Intercontinental Championship to Michaels, who then lost in his bid to challenge Hart for the WWF Championship at Survivor Series, thus completing a nice triangle between the three as top emerging talents on more or less equal kayfabe footing.
Smith defected to WCW, then came back to the WWF and was soon a main eventer. The thing is, he spent the years to follow putting over Michaels, Hart, and Diesel in turns, always a top contender, never actually able to win the big one. Though he’d do some fine work down the road in the Hart Foundation, by that point it was clear he’d never cross the threshold to actually winning a world title (though, after another tour of WCW, he’d come back and briefly challenge The Rock for the title in his last WWF run).
So, Smith arrives in the odd space of kayfabe record suggesting he was very good but never quite great, and his in-ring and mic skills similarly place him in solid but never great territory (though he did broach greatness with the right dance partner, particularly brothers Bret and Owen Hart).
68. Sasha Banks
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Sasha Banks is, at the time of this writing, a three-time Women’s Champion in WWE.
Best moment: Banks forced arch-rival Charlotte Flair to tap clean in a Falls Count Anywhere match with a brutal banister-assisted Banks Statement. The match main evented Raw, and, in the process, Banks won back the Raw Women’s Championship.
Rationale: Over the course of her tenure in NXT, Sasha Banks evolved into one of the mostly highly regarded developmental prospects ever. Her Boss character was magnetic, and she came into he own on promos. Her in-ring game advanced until she was elite — no “for a female performer” asterisk required — and in 2015 her work opposite Becky Lynch and Bayley produced no fewer than three legit match of the year contenders.
For the first few months of her main roster tenure, Banks looked stalled out. While she was relatively protected, she was also mostly lost in the shuffle while Charlotte Flair got pushed to the moon. Things took a turn come her first WrestleMania season, though, at which point she entered the title picture and took part in a stellar triple threat with Flair and Lynch, before properly feuding with Flair one-on-one for the rest of the year, trading victories and the Women’s Championship in great match after great match that include two Raw main events and a match that was both the first ever women’s Hell in a Cell bout, and the first women’s main event on the main roster, followed by a very strong Iron Man Match.
Time will tell how Banks’s WWE career will progress. If she’s peaked, then this ranking will probably seem too high with historical perspective. At the age of twenty-five, with under six years pro under his belt, it seems more likely that her best is yet to come, though, at the fore of the strongest women’s division WWE has ever seen.
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Earthquake was a WWF Tag Team Champion and feuded with Hulk Hogan including major matches at SummerSlam and Survivor Series, and Earthquake being the last man eliminated by Hogan when he won the 1991 Royal Rumble.
Best moment: Earthquake executed a brutal attack on Hulk Hogan in the late spring of 1990, hitting him with repeated Earthquake Splashes to kayfabe injure him and launch their program that lasted half a year.
Rationale: There’s a sense in which Earthquake followed in the tradition of super heavyweights like Andre the Giant, King Kong Bundy, and Big John Studd — particularly as a tall 400-to-500 pounder who quickly and most famously targeted Hulk Hogan. Just the same, Earthquake also denoted an evolution of the concept as he was more mobile than his predecessors, thus foretelling main event big men to follow like Vader and Yokozuna.
Earthquake’s run came too late in the Hulkamania years to really take him seriously as a threat to the Hulkster, but Earthquake adapted well to become an upper mid-card threat, and then transition into the tag scene as half of The Natural Disasters with Typhoon. As cartoonish as the gimmick was, the pair was big enough to pose a believable threat to the Legion of Doom, and over as faces when they went on to challenge Money Inc.
Earthquake was an iconic heel character from the fading days of a boom period for the WWF, and a talented worker (particularly for his size).
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Despite a highly decorated career around the world (particularly with WCW) Vader never actually won a title in the WWF. Despite that, he was a main eventer or upper mid-carder and regular challenger for the world title for most of his run.
Best moment: Early in his tenure Vader attacked kayfabe WWF President Gorilla Monsoon. The concept of authority figures getting involved in the action, much less pounded into injury and off TV was quite rare at the time and drew some big heat for Vader as he made his presence known at the top of the card.
Rationale: Vader is a bit of a controversial figure in wrestling history. For everyone who celebrates his stiff style and remarkable athleticism for such a big man, there are those cut him down for being too stiff and taking liberties with his opponents. From most of what I’ve gathered, the powers that be initially envisioned Vader as a world champion, taking the strap off Shawn Michaels in their initial SummerSlam showdown, but a combination of Kliq politics and general sentiment that Vader was too fat and smelly (no, seriously) derailed his big push.
Vader would remain an upper mid-card menace, sidelining Yokozuna, challenging The Undertaker, and turning face to represent the US against The Hart Foundation stable. The writing was on the wall that he had already peaked, however, when new monster Kane defeated him in dominant fashion, and Vader went on to put over young Mark Henry and then Bradshaw on his way out the door. He’d come back for cameo appearances — an embarrassing outing when he lost his balance and fell off the ring when he was supposed to be backing The Coach against Batista, then a more satisfying nostalgia-driven cameo when he squashed Heath Slater.
I’m among those fans who always thought the WWF should have done more for with Vader, but I do also feel that he arrived at the wrong time — a little too serious when the WWF still skewed cartoonish and kid-friendly, and then he was already kayfabe damaged goods and shoot slipping past his prime when The Attitude Era rolled along.
65. Jerry Lawler
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Lawler engaged in high profile feuds opposite stars like Bret Hart, Tazz, and The Miz, over the course of his almost twenty-five years with WWE.
Best moment: The execution was sloppy and whether this really counts as a WWF moment is very much subject to debate, but I’m giving it to Lawler invading ECW’s Wrestlepalooza 1997 under his WWF gimmick attacking Tommy Dreamer and insulting the live audience.
Rationale: Despite quite possibly being the wrestler with the most title wins ever (see his eighty-plus reigns with the top titles of Memphis alone) Lawler never actually won a title in WWE in over two decades of work. Just the same, from the very beginning he was treated as someone who ought to be respected. The King was immediately thrust into feuds with the likes of Bret Hart and Roddy Piper. Before long, he was a part-time wrestler, part time color commentator which fostered the transition into him being more and more of an on-air personality, less-and-less of an in-ring performer, though he continued to make irregular wrestling appearances, over as a wrestling legend despite not having a legendary catalog of accomplishments in WWE.
The best and worst of Lawler: The guy was such a tremendous heat magnet when he represented the WWF opposite of ECW. He mixed outdated Memphis tradition and WWF cartoonishness to be the perfect foil for the actual ECW when it entered a working relationship with the WWF in the late 1990s, and for the WWE version of ECW when it launched in 2006. On the flip side, while Lawler was good in his role of providing a credible opponent to put over budding world champ The Miz in 2011, this segued to brutally bad, brutally long feud with Michael Cole that overtook the show for the two of them bickering over all matches on commentary and delivering awful match after awful match when they actually locked horns.
It would be easy to dismiss Lawler’s WWE work as a coda or epilogue to the rest of his career in which he was the definitive legend in Memphis and a world champion for the AWA, but he was involved in all manner of angles and moments with WWE, and his time there has certainly added to his notoriety and wrestling legacy.
64. Matt Hardy
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Hardy is a one-time WWE ECW Champion, one-time United States Champion, one-time European Champion, one-time Cruiserweight Champion, one-time Hardcore Champion, and eight-time tag champ.
Best moment: Hardy made an unannounced return to WWE TV by attacking Edge, the subject of Hardy’s real-life heat over a real-life affair with Hardy’s real-life girlfriend, in one of the most electric worked shoot moments in wrestling history.
Rationale: Hardy is an eccentric, to be sure — a fact that’s caused a lot of wrestling fans dismiss him over time. Just the same, he’s as cutting edge as his better-celebrated brother (and maybe more so) in being a purveyor of fast-paced, innovative offense. He’s also a master of incorporating personal issues into stories and the worked shoot; his off-the-wall creative mind has opened up all sorts of opportunities for him post-WWE, too.
Besides his work as a young jobber, Hardy got his earnest start with WWE in a tremendous tag team with his brother Jeff. The two assembled a tremendous catalog of matches with teams like Edge and Christian and The Dudley Boyz during their primary run, besides later coming back to thrive opposite newer teams like MNM.
In between, Hardy did well as a singles performer. He was a successful face, but all the more entertaining under his quirky Matt Hardy Version 1 character, before becoming a more serious upper mid-carder and engaging the likes of Edge and MVP in particularly memorable feuds.
Matt never demonstrated quite the athletic dare devilry nor the charisma of his brother who would reach greater heights in WWE kayfabe, but he was nonetheless a heck of a creative performer with a deceptively strong body of work to show for his time with the company.
(Note: while it’s not WWE work, and thus not eligible for consideration in this countdown, I realized some readers may be WWE-only fans, and may not have encountered Broken Matt Hardy — a gimmick he developed in (and over which he is currently locked in a real-life intellectual property legal battle with) TNA. If you’ve got twenty minutes to dedicate to one of the best/worst wrestling spectacles of all time, click play below.)
63. Mark Henry
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Henry is a one-time World Heavyweight Champion, one-time WWE ECW Champion, and one-time European Champion in WWE.
Best moment: With remarkable sincerity and acting chops, Henry faked his own retirement, whilst clad in a glorious pink blazer, only to reveal it was all a ruse and proceed to lay out John Cena and establish himself as the new number one contender for what will probably be his last main event-level run.
Rationale: For wrestlers who last in WWE for a decade — much less two — it’s not uncommon for them to ascend the card over a period of years to end up at the main event level. It’s also not so uncommon to have a main event run relatively early then settle into the mid-card. While I’m sure I’m forgetting someone, Henry’s WWE tenure is downright bizarre for bucking each of these trends, in favor of nearly fifteen years of middling, forgettable mid-card work, followed by an explosion into the main event scene after which point he spent over a year as one of the very best monster heels in the game.
The WWF signed Henry after his successful Olympic weightlifting career. While he was an impressive physical specimen, he failed to click as a wrestler, first a generic patriot, then better under the quirky Sexual Chocolate gimmick, then meh as an upper card heel. He started to find himself in WWE’s ECW, and then became transcendent in the Hall of Pain run when he started physically dominating anyone who dared cross him, including The Big Show, Sheamus, and Randy Orton, en route to his first world title reign. He followed up that run with a good program opposite Ryback, followed by a tremendous feud with John Cena.
Henry has, since, stopped overachieving and settled into what you’d expect from a twenty-year veteran big man — working a part-time-ish schedule and spending most of his time either putting over younger heels or providing back up to younger faces. Without his glory years, he’d probably be a fringe top hundred guy; adding those best years in, he lands comfortably around the number sixty spot.
62. Mr. McMahon
Top kayfabe accomplishments: McMahon won the WWF World Championship and the WWE ECW Championship. He won the Royal Rumble once.
Best moment: In the intense heat of a rivalry with new son-in-law Triple H, McMahon challenged him for the world title on SmackDown. Triple H dominated the action but some well-timed interference from Steve Austin produced a monster pop and gave McMahon — who, particularly at that stage, was not a full-time wrestler — the top title in the business to a huge reaction from the live crowd.
Rationale: When it comes to wrestling characters, few villains can touch Mr. McMahon — megalomaniacal, jacked to the gills, and a hell of a talker. McMahon certainly worked more than enough matches to qualify for this countdown. Almost all of them were high profile, and quite a few were genuinely entertaining. Just the same, I’m hard pressed to let McMahon crack the top sixty when he was never actually a very good wrestler, far more dependent on his willingness to absorb punishment than actual athletic ability.
For all of his limitations, there was still a time when watching McMahon get beat up by Steve Austin was the most entertaining sight a wrestling fan could possibly encounter, and watching Austin fight and claw to defend his family’s honor against Triple H was pretty great, too.
Over-exposure cast a spotlight on McMahon’s shortcomings, as feuds to follow opposite his son Shane, Hulk Hogan, and Shawn Michaels, were quite good, but feuds with Stephanie, The Undertaker, and Zach Gowen weren’t up to that level, and feuds with Bret Hart and Bobby Lashley were outright bad.
All considered, McMahon runs WWE, and thus will always be a celebrated figure in professional wrestling. Moreover, his character work qualifies him as the all-time best heel authority figure and a contender for top heel persona, period. As a wrestler, however, he could only succeed up to certain level.
61. The Big Boss Man
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Boss Man was a four-time Hardcore Champion and one-time WWF Tag Team Champion. He notably challenged Hulk Hogan and The Big Show during their world title reigns, over a decade apart and in highly distinct eras.
Best moment: This is tough because a lot of what I would call Boss Man’s best would also qualify as guilty pleasures. With that disclaimer, I’m going to give it to him crashing the kayfabe funeral of The Big Show’s father to ridicule Show and his family and drag the casket by the back of his car while Show gave chase.
Rationale: Mid-1980s to mid-1990s WWF programming is chock full of big men who were impressive for their sheer size, be they jacked to the gills with muscle, or impressively fat. Boss Man stands out as one of those big men who could, at first glance, be dismissed as one of the fat guys, but who was all the more impressive to watch because, regardless of size, he was remarkably fast, agile, and fun to watch.
Early in his tenure, Boss Man played a bully of a correctional officer, quickly inserted into the main event scene alongside Akeem to rival Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage. He transitioned to a face, at which point he became one of the most popular acts in the company going up against Ted Dibiase and later fighting his way through Bobby Heenan’s Family of wrestlers. Eventually, he spawned a spin-off character in Nailz, an ex-convict seeking revenge after Boss Man had brutalized him in prison. If you need a testament to how remarkably impressive The Undertaker and Kane are for their evolution and longevity — here’s your counter example. Though Nailz had a good luck, he was never much of a worker and exited the WWF under controversy inside of a year.
Boss Man, however, would evolve. After leaving for WCW for a period of years, he returned in the thick of The Attitude Era and was as over as ever, predominantly playing a heater for Vince McMahon’s Corporation stable, notably feuding with The Undertaker, Al Snow, and The Big Show.
While Boss Man’s limited success in championship pursuits, and less-than-stellar win-loss record in big matches limit his placement in this countdown, he remains an iconic character, tremendous worker, and solid talker.
60. Tito Santana
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Santana was a one-time Intercontinental Champion (really, a two-time champ, but the first reign was before the period in consideration for this countdown) and a two-time WWF Tag Team Champion. He won the untelevised 1989 King of the Ring tournament.
Best moment: Santana holds the distinction of winning the very first WrestleMania match, forcing The Executioner to submit to a figure four leg lock in a match that’s simultaneously forgettable and historically important.
Rationale: Santana’s best days arguably came pre-WrestleMania (remarkable in the context that he still works the indy circuit part-time, going on forty years as an in-ring performer), but he was a loyal soldier for most of the first decade of the WrestleMania years, the only man other than Hulk Hogan to work the first eight straight ‘Manias (and kind of the first nine, though his appearance at WrestleMania 9 was in a dark match). Over this period, Santana went from super over upper mid-carder early on, to tag guy paired with Rick Martel as Strike Force, to jobber to up-and-coming stars as El Matador — un-subtly rebranded as a bull-fighter.
Santana never broached the main event scene in the WrestleMania years (he had briefly prior to them), but was a steady, often overlooked and underrated worker in the ring, besides providing a recognizable face to facilitate a range of young heels transitioning from the tag ranks to solid mid-card status, including Martel, Shawn Michaels, The Mountie, and The Barbarian.
59. Charlotte Flair
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Flair is, at the time of writing, a four-time Women’s/Divas Champion. She is one of only four women to have main evented Monday Night Raw, one of the first two to do it twice, and the first woman to win a PPV main event.
Best moment: To cap a strong main event and Hell in a Cell Match, Flair (wo)manhandled rival Sasha Banks and hit Natural Selection to pin her and regain the Women’s Championship.
Rationale: Flair’s an easy top-five-ish pick when it comes to ranking all-time best female performers in WWE, particularly for her in-ring work. She gets an extra push to the very front of the pack on account of kayfabe success. For when WWE decided to take women’s wrestling seriously, Flair was at the vanguard. She was one of a group of three women who debuted out of NXT to make the movement a thing, and the first new champion crowned during that era. She went on to win the excellent, high profile women’s match at WrestleMania 32 to retain/win the newly rechristened Women’s Championship. Then she went ahead and won the first women’s main event and first women’s Hell in a Cell Match opposite arch-rival Sasha Banks, and the first main roster women’s Iron Man Match at Roadblock 2016.
Though she’s only been on the main roster for a year and a half, Flair is already an excellent in-ring performer, particularly for the athleticism and raw power she weaves into her work. She’s coming along as a talker, too — still a little stilted and slow for my tastes, though I know a number of my contemporaries disagree, and cite her talking as a strength, too. In any event, as she continues to evolve as an all-around performer, and feuds with a wider array of opponents, there’s all the potential in the world for her to push even higher in a ranking like this within a couple years.
58. Ricky Steamboat
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Steamboat was an Intercontinental Champion.
Best moment: After a long-term program highlighted by Randy Savage kayfabe crushing Steamboat’s throat with a ring bell, Steamboat returned to action and put on an all-time classic match with Savage at WrestleMania 3, culminating in Steamboat winning his lone championship in WWE in front of a live audience of 93,000.
Rationale: Steamboat is quite arguably a top five all-time worker in any wrestling promotion. Unfortunately, for the purposes of this countdown, he only had one truly exceptional match under the WWE banner, and spent most of his prime either working for the NWA Mid-Atlantic/WCW or in the wrong place at the wrong time when the WWF didn’t put much stock in match quality.
Still, Steamboat was a WWF mid-card fixture from the mid-to-late 1980s, highlighted by his program with Savage, and he had another perfectly respectable if excessively gimmicked run as The Dragon in 1991 (when he literally blew fire from the corner before each match).
The cherry on top of his WWE work? In 2009, Steamboat returned to the ring alongside Roddy Piper and Jimmy Snuka to address Chris Jericho’s disrespect of wrestling legends at large. The angle and resulting match were largely forgettable save for forty-six year old Steamboat who’d been retired for over a decade performing exceptionally well in his limited minutes. He’d go on to perform similarly well, picking up the win for his team in a ten-man tag match on Raw the next night, and wrap up his in-ring career proper working one-on-one with Chris Jericho in a PPV match at Backlash. He would get his swan song in the form of enduring a Nexus attack as the stable rose to supremacy the summer of 2010 — a fitting role for a guy whose most significant calling card as a performer was undoubtedly his ability to sell a beating as if he were really dying, generating unparalleled sympathy from the crowd.
57. Rick Rude
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Rude was an Intercontinental Champion and a challenger to The Ultimate Warrior when he was world champ.
Best moment: Rude wore tights with rival Jake Roberts’ wife Cheryl’s face airbrushed over his crotch. For a wrestler whose gimmick was based on being simultaneously sleazy and seductive, this particular machination marked the peak of the specific brand of arrogant villain Rude played.
Rationale: Rude famously told his contemporaries that wrestling was an upper body business. Fittingly, he covered his lower body in long tights, and highlighted one of the most impressive physiques in the business on his upper half. While it’s his look and his lurid character work that fans tend to remember best, Rude was a deceptively keen in-ring worker, in particular pulling off some of the best matches of The Ultimate Warrior’s career when they feuded over the Intercontinental Championship in 1989, and again over the world title in 1990. He also had significant chops on the mic, ahead of his time with his dressing down of fans and insistence that he would show the women of whatever locale “what a real man looks like.”
Rude would go on to have his best in-ring years in WCW in the early to mid-1990s, where he was more consistently a fringe main eventer working opposite the likes of Ric Flair, Sting, Ron Simmons, and Dustin Rhodes, before ultimately retiring from full-time in-ring work. Interestingly enough, Rude arguably went on to greater fame after he became a non-wrestling personality, first as Shawn Michaels’s kayfabe bodyguard and forgotten charter member of Degeneration X, then all the more notably for appearing on pre-taped WWF Monday Night Raw and live WCW Monday Nitro on the same night. According to recent interviews with Eric Bischoff, Rude wanted to return to the ring from there, but couldn’t due to legal issues around an insurance policy he collected on while injured, that meant he couldn’t return to working matches without paying back the company.
56. William Regal
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Regal was a two-time Intercontinental Champion, four-time European Champion, five-time Hardcore Champion, and four-time World Tag Team Champion. He won the King of the Ring tournament once.
Best moment: Regal cleanly Regal Stretched CM Punk into submission to win the 2008 King of the Ring tournament final.
Rationale: William Regal is pretty universally celebrated as a great wrestling villain who could sell both serious and comedic storylines with the best of them. He was a supreme in-ring technician, and was a great talker. He could play a great face, too, in particular exhibited by his work with Tajiri and later with Eugene.
The trouble with Regal? For all of his greatness, his personal demons derailed him at multiple big turns, resulting in getting released or suspended. It’s a testament to Regal’s character — and probably the reason why he got so many chances — that he always took responsibility for these issues. Just the same, it’s unfortunate he never got a full-fledged run on top on account of these issues, particularly in the case of his 2008 angle as both King and general manager, which looked to pay off huge against rebellious face Mr. Kennedy, only to get rushed to its conclusion on account of Regal’s Wellness Policy suspension, and for Regal to never regain that level of momentum on screen.
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Christian was a two-time World Heavyweight Champion, two-time WWE ECW Champion, four-time Intercontinental Champion, European Champion, Light Heavyweight Champion, Hardcore Champion, and nine-time World Tag Team Champion in WWE.
Best moment: Christian defeated Alberto Del Rio in a very good Ladder Match to capture his first true and indisputable world championship (NWA World Championship reigns in TNA and his ECW title reigns muddy the waters a little there), picking up the title vacated by his long-time on-and-off-screen buddy Edge.
Rationale: Christian is one of a handful of guys who had the potential to be a true, long-term main eventer and whom a lot of hardcore fans would have supported in that role, but who never really got that chance. While he was the less shining star out of his early-career tag team with Edge, truth be told they were both great in the ring and on the mic. But while Edge charted a slow-but-steady course to the main event, Christian meandered through the mid-card after the great team gave way, and wound up finding more success by defecting to TNA and proving himself as a main eventer there, only come back and get a shot in the WWE ECW main event, before settling into the upper mid-card after that.
Christian got his shot at World Heavyweight Championship glory in a tremendous feel-good story after Edge retired early, but that story always comes with the caveat that it only lasted a few days before he dropped the title to Randy Orton. Rather than getting a good underdog main event story of his own, Christian turned heel, hovered in the main event and got another title reign via a spurious title-changes-hands-on-DQ stipulation, but quickly put over Orton again decisively before finishing out his career out of the spotlight, peaking when he teamed with The Usos to beat The Shield, followed not long after by getting beaten into oblivion by The Shield as they continued their march toward the top of the card.
As a stellar all-around performer, and former world champ, for however limited a time, Christian remains memorable in WWE history, those he’s also a guy who might have accomplished so much more with more opportunities.
54. Bray Wyatt
Top kayfabe accomplishments: As of this wrting, Wyatt is the reigning WWE Champion, and he’s a one-time former Smackdown Tag Team Champion.
Best moment: Wyatt and his Family allies Luke Harper and Erick Rowan defeated The Shield in an exceptional six-man bout (and a rare heels vs. heels match) at Elimination Chamber 2014 to seemingly pass the torch as the fresh young studs who’d run wild over WWE in the months ahead (this only sort of worked out in practice).
Rationale: When Husky Harris debuted on NXT and transitioned to Monday Night Raw alongside Curtis Axel, no one expected all that much out of him. He was a big man with good speed behind him, sure, and had the legacy of being the son of IRS, but surely all of that would only take him so far. Enter a complete character reinvention as the man returned to NXT and cultivated the Bray Wyatt character, and he re-debuted on the main roster a changed man with a wild and fascinating gimmic, and absolutely no ceiling for what he might accomplish.
The road has been long and winding ever since. For though WWE seemed invested in keeping Wyatt somewhere in the upper-mid-card to main event mix, he spent three years without ever winning a title. And big match wins? You can inarguably cite his teams big win over The Shield, and Wyatt defeating Daniel Bryan solo at Royal Rumble 2014. But what else had he done? OK, he won PPV main events against Dean Ambrose and Randy Orton, but each effort was marred by less than riveting trickery (a TV monitor shocking Ambrose; Luke Harper anticlimactically returning to distract Orton), and the same can be said for Wyatt’s conspicuous steel cage win over John Cena, when a demon child showed up to scare Cena.
High profile WrestleMania interactions? Wyatt’s had a few, but has never really come out for the better from them, dropping forgettable bouts to John Cena and The Undertaker, then all but jobbing out in an interview segment with The Rock. Little of this is really Wyatt’s fault as he’s remained notably over via creepy promo work and solid in-ring efforts, but after three directionless years, you had to wonder if he’d ever really accomplish anything.
A rivalry turned partnership turned rivalry again with Randy Orton in the last half year has breathed some fresh life into the character, including his first tag team title win and then his first world title win in a fine Elimination Chamber performance. Whether he keeps up this momentum or reverts back to having no direction post-WrestleMania 33 may say a lot for the man’s legacy.
53. Razor Ramon
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Ramon was a four-time Intercontinental Champion.
Best moment: Ramon won a well-executed, innovative, and influential match to retain the Intercontinental Championship against Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania 10 in Madison Square Garden. The encounter put Ladder Matches on the map, besides quite arguably being Ramon’s best match ever.
Rationale: Switch up timing, personal issues, and a big money offer from WCW, and Razor Ramon likely would have been a world champion. Just the same, he stood tall as an all-time great Intercontinental Champion and upper mid-card star. He debuted as a bully heel in an immediately memorable gimmick and was thrust directly to the main event scene, working opposite Randy Savage and Mr. Perfect, besides challenging Bret Hart for the world title. Ramon came into his own as a face though, feuding with guys like Shawn Michaels, Diesel, Jeff Jarrett, and Goldust.
Ramon would go on to an even better WCW run under his real name, kick starting the nWo, and came back for a WWE coda in 2002. He’s known as a great wrestling mind and describes himself as the Tito Santana of his era — a top mid-card act and gatekeeper to the main event. One way or another, he remains one of WWE’s most memorable characters and a solid hand.
52. Paul Orndorff
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Orndorff main evented the first WrestleMania.
Best moment: Orndorff turned his back on Hulk Hogan to renew their rivalry by piledriving him at the end of a tag match between the two and the tandem of Big John Studd and King Kong Bundy. The reignited feud was hot and according to some was the backup plan if Hogan-Andre didn’t come together for WrestleMania 3.
Rationale: Mr. Wonderful’s status on this countdown is difficult to quantify both on account of some of his best work coming before (and particularly in the build to) the first WrestleMania, and because a lot of his best in-ring work in this era in all likelihood occurred on the house show circuit and thus is lost to the sands of time. Just the same, for those early days of the WrestleMania years, Orndorff was an upper card-to-main event fixture, feuding twice with Hulk Hogan, with a solid face run in between.
Orndorff had a great look and was solid in the ring. There’s every reason to suspect he may have had more to contribute, were it not for an arm injury that he worked his way through so he didn’t miss out on big money working with Hulk Hogan. Just the same Orndorff was a memorable character in his era, who went to contribute more as a WCW mid-carder in the 1990s.
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Goldust is a three-time Intercontinental Champion, nine-time Hardcore Champion, and three-time tag champ in WWE.
Best moment: Goldust gave Ahmed Johnson unwarranted, unasked for, completely unwelcome mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Johnson, still at the start of his WWF career and booked as a complete badass went ballistic and Goldust earned himself nuclear heat.
Rationale: Goldust is a wildly talented professional wrestler, no doubt. As Dustin Rhodes, he got off to a solid start as a rookie in the WWF alongside his dad, and after maturing into a star in his own right in WCW, he came back to the WWF with a stand-out gimmick. The flamboyance and homoeroticism of the Goldust character were both ahead of their time (a vanguard of the Attitude Era that would really take hold a couple years after his debut) and garnered incredible heat by playing off the stereotypical wrestling fan of the day’s homophobia. He positively thrived as an upper mid-carder in the mid-to-late 1990s, memorably feuding with guys like Razor Ramon, The Ultimate Warrior, and Ahmed Johnson over the Intercontinental Championship, before moving on to the strange Artist Formerly Known as Goldust gimmick, and enjoying a brief face run.
After a couple years in WCW, Goldust came back to most memorably form an excellent odd-couple tag team with Booker T, and take on a well-played if in-poor-taste gimmick of suffering from Tourrette’s following an electric shock. He was an on-again off-again character for years to follow, inserted into a variety of ultimately forgettable angles that he nonetheless helped overachieve, such as his mentorship-turned-egnagement-turned betrayal angle with Aksana). The most remarkable part of all? Fifteen-to-twenty years past his prime, Goldust returned to the limelight again, purportedly recovered via DDP Yoga, to back his brother in a feud with The Authority and The Shield, and was awesome — thoroughly earning himself a spot on the main roster in perpetuity as he continues, to this day, to perform far better and demonstrate far better conditioning than a guy in his late forties ought to. It’s this longevity and ability to thrive in a variety of unlikely roles that makes Goldust such a special talent, and one of the very best to never get a meaningful chance at the main event.
50. Jake Roberts
Top kayfabe accomplishments: For one of WWE’s all-time most iconic characters, and best respected legends, Roberts remarkably never won a title or main evented a PPV (outside of Royal Rumbles).
Best moment: With the use of his King Cobra Damien, newly heel Roberts terrorized Randy Savage and Miss Elizabeth in a wonderfully heated, uncharacteristically dark feud that ran from 1991 and 1992, most memorably using the snake to assault Savage, caught in the ring ropes, on TV.
Rationale: Though Roberts never really reached higher than upper mid-card status, he notably achieved that status (and achieved tremendous success within it) three distinct times. First, he was a face with a solid gimmick and well above average work rate from the late 1980s to early 1990s. Then he was a fascinatingly dark heel unlike anyone in recent WWF memory from summer 1991 to spring 1992, when he feuded with Randy Savage, The Ultimate Warrior, and The Undertaker. Finally, Savage returned in the late-1990s, a born-again Christian and changed man who played face and feuded with Jerry Lawler and Camp Cornette, besides most famously of all putting over Steve Austin in the 1996 King of the Ring tournament finals to set up the glorious Austin 3:16 promo and t-shirt craze to follow.
Roberts was a silky smoother worker and killer promo. By all accounts, his understanding of wrestling psychology is beyond compare. While his limited kayfabe accomplishments, plus his personal demons and time away from WWE put a glass ceiling over him for the purposes of this countdown, he remains a bona fide WWE legend.
49. Bam Bam Bigelow
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Bigelow main evented WrestleMania once.
Best moment: Bigelow put over celebrity visitor Lawrence Taylor in spectacular fashion in the main event of WrestleMania 11, making the retired football star look like a million bucks in the process.
Rationale: Pundits tend to credit Mick Foley for being great at putting over other talents, noting all of the main eventers that he made by losing to them in spectacular fashion. While Bigelow doesn’t have quite Foley’s resume, he nonetheless stands out as an outstanding big man in the ring who may never have won a world title, but just the same thrived and putting over other guys huge in big match situations. His resume includes the aforementioned high profile loss to LT, putting over Andre the Giant in the original Survivor Series main event, facilitating a great win for Bret Hart to win the final match of the first PPV King of the Ring tournament, and putting over Goldust in the character’s PPV debut.
Bigelow was ego-less — putting on strong match after strong match, going full throttle whether he was in the main event mix or feuding with Doink the Clown. Bigelow was allegedly the victim of politics, subjugated to the midcard in the middle of his big push post-WrestleMania 11 teaming with Diesel, in favor Shawn Michaels more or less taking his place in the super-friends face tag team. Without a more sustained shot at the top, it’s hard to rate Bigelow any higher than this. Just the point, he’s a worthy talent with a tremendous look who did great things under the WWF banner and beyond.
48. Sergeant Slaughter
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Slaughter was a WWF World Heavyweight Champion and main evented one WrestleMania.
Best moment: Slaughter pinned an incapacitated Ultimate Warrior at Royal Rumble 1991 to win the world title and set him on a patriotic collision course against Hulk Hogan at WrestleMania 7.
Rationale: Slaughter purportedly gave up his spot as one of the top faces of the WWF not long before the original WrestleMania — holding up Vince McMahon for money and thus getting fired and effectively replaced by Corporal Kirchner. The Kirchner experiment made a statement even if the character didn’t really take, and Slaughter was in exile for six years before returning the fold as a wildly revamped character — not an All-American hero, or even a bully drill sergeant, but a far more sinister turncoat Iraqi sympathizer at the dawn of the Gulf War.
This run was a complex and interesting one. Slaughter played his part, working the WWF main event style of the day reasonably well, playing an over-the-top villain for patriotic Hulk Hogan to take down at WrestleMania. Just the same, Slaughter’s high profile matches were pretty bad by today’s standard and his gimmick very arguably generated the wrong kind of heat — not making people want to pay to see him get beat up, but rather offending some, and allegedly causing death threats to Slaughter and WWF management.
Slaughter’s redemption tour, in which he turned face, apologized, and briefly teamed with Jim Duggan seemed like a step in the right direction, but was a lot lower profile and fizzled before long as Slaughter receded to a role of part-time in-ring performer, and part-time behind-the-scenes worker. He’d put in some more solid efforts as a representative of traditional authority against DX during The Attitude Era, but his best days were clearly behind him at that point.
47. Bob Backlund
Top kayfabe accomplishments: During the time period under consideration, Backlund was a one-time WWF World Champion (yes, he spent nearly six years as world champ pre-WrestleMania).
Best moment: Backlund snapped after a TV loss to Bret Hart and assaulted the then-champ with the Crossface Chickenwing.
Rationale: In the broader scheme of WWE history, Backlund stands out as a guy who held the world title for nearly six years (minus a non-canon title change, and non-canon vacation of the title) but all of that came before the first WrestleMania, so Backlund rates based on his mid-1990s run. It’s a credit to Backlund that, in his mid-forties and well past his prime, he still assembled a memorable and high quality run as both an in-ring technician and wonderfully maniacal character to still justify a top fifty ranking.
After a middling run as a mid-card face, Backlund dropped a TV match to Bret Hart, and subsequently snapped and launched a crazy heel run — the kind you have to wonder if he might have had a decade earlier if rumors are true that management wanted him to be heel and drop his title to Hulk Hogan, only to refuse and have The Iron Sheik play transitional champ between the two. Regardless, Backlund was so good in the role, and the WWF was looking for another transitional champ, thus Backlund got a brief title reign only to pass the torch Diesel — a character all but designed to recapture the Hogan magic for a new generation. The match in between — when Backlund won the title — was a strange forgotten gem that was positively brutal for its time with Backlund looking certifiable and Hart selling the Crossface Chickenwing like death while he refused to submit. Hart and Backlund would reprise their rivalry to less sterling results in a generally poorly received submission match at WrestleMania 11, which effectively proved Backlund’s sign off as an in-ring performer for the WWF, though he’ have recurring parts as an on-air personality and manager for years to come.
46. Owen Hart
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Hart was a two-time Intercontinental Champion, one-time European Champion, and four-time Tag Team Champion. He won the King of the Ring tournament once.
Best moment: Hart cleanly, shockingly countered a victory roll to pin his brother Bret in a fantastic opening match to WrestleMania 10.
Rationale: One of the great, ultimately unanswerable questions of in wrestling: was Owen Hart limited for never quite being able to emerge from his brother Bret’s long shadow? Or was Owen Hart given the opportunity to shine to the extent he did because of his brother?
Another question: How high might Owen Hart have reached were it not for his untimely death in front of a live audience?
Another question: Is it possible that, based on pure talent, Owen was his brother’s equal, or, dare I say, even better?
OK, enough with the questions. Owen Hart was great. A tremendous technician, an ahead-of-his-time aerial artist, and an excellent heel character once he got the opportunity to show off his personality. Early on, though, the WWF didn’t give him much of a chance to thrive, first saddling him with the Blue Blazer gimmick, then positioning him in lackluster tag teams with Jim Neidhart and Koko B. Ware. Once Hart turned heel on his brother, he came into his own as a uniquely entertaining main event heel, before he transitioned to spend the rest of his career his career in the upper mid-card, tag partner to Yokozuna, a star in the Hart Foundation stable, and then a strange cog in the Nation of Domination before he reverted to The Blue Blazer gimmick that was his undoing.
It’s unfortunate that Hart’s fatal accident overshadows much of his legacy, and that family controversies that peaked with the Montreal Screwjob don’t do his body of work any favors either. Just the same, Hart is a legend in his own right who I’d love to rate higher if he ever had gotten even a brief run with the world title. At least he had his Slammys.
45. Booker T
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Booker T was a World Heavyweight Champion, two-time WCW Champion, one-time Intercontinental Champion, three-time United States Champion, two-time Hardcore Champion, three-time WWE and one-time WCW Tag Team Champion in WWE (yes, he had many more reigns with some of the same titles in WCW). He won the King of the Ring tournament once.
Best moment: Booker T pinned Rey Mysterio Jr. at The Great American Bash 2006 to win his first and only true world title under the auspices of WWE (murky, for sure, given the WCW Championship’s lineage in WWE, but this was the one he earned, not as the de facto face of WCW in WWE, but rather as a self-made star during his WWE tenure).
Rationale: While Booker T came of age in WCW, one of the few true home-grown stars of the promotion who worked his way from undercard tag guy to legit main eventer, and was in his physical prime under the WCW banner, he enjoyed unlikely success in WWE. Though his WCW history immediately put him front and center for the Invasion, he yo-yoed up and down the card from fringe main eventer (most notably challenging Triple H for the World Heavyweight Championship at WrestleMania 19) to tag guy and upper mid-card fixture. Things all came together five years into his tenure, though, when he won the King of the Ring tournament and embraced the royal gimmick in full, arriving at arguably his best character work of his entire career.
King Booker justly got an extended reign as World Heavyweight Champion through half of 2006 and remained a more entertaining upper mid-card threat for the rest of his tenure. After time away with TNA, Booker returned to the fold as a commentator, authority figure, and part-time wrestler, adding a bit to his legacy as he assumed his place as a bona fide legend.
Were WCW work factored in, Booker would certainly move up the countdown. As is, he still finishes respectably for solid in-ring work, entertaining promos, and most of all for his willingness and ability to reinvent himself in a memorable heel persona to fit that stage of his career and the mid-aughts WWE landscape.
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Sheamus is a four-time world champion, two-time United States Champion, and one-time Raw Tag Team Champion in WWE. He won the Royal Rumble, King of the Ring, and Money in the Bank.
Best moment: Sheamus shoved John Cena through a table to pull off the unlikely win of his first world title at TLC 2009.
Rationale: If you look at Sheamus’s kayfabe resume, the sheer breadth of his accomplishments would suggest an all-time great. You could argue that he is a great, but the actual execution of Sheamus’s WWE tenure has been less even than all that. Sheamus vaulted to the main event quickly and his first world title reign sooner than anyone would have expected, before settling into the upper mid-card. As a face, he was one of those key beneficiaries of the first brand split, rarely the guy but nonetheless frequently in one world title picture or the other, including most infamously getting a lightning quick victory over Daniel Bryan for the World Heavyweight Championship in the opening match of WrestleMania 28.
The problem is that Sheamus was something of a throwback, a dude with a great look and distinctive character, who was always good but rarely great in the ring or on the mic. Despite the best efforts of the powers that be, the fans were more behind guys like CM Punk and Bryan, after which the emphasis moved along to The Shield and other new talents. Sheamus looks to go down as a Superstar who arrived in the wrong time, and thus wound up in upper mid-card limbo in perpetuity.
43. Kevin Owens
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Owens is a one-time Universal Champion and two-time Intercontinental Champion in WWE.
Best moment: Owens bludgeoned — or, to be more precise, powerbombed — John Cena until he was defenseless and pinned him clean in his first main roster match at Elimination Chamber 2015.
Rationale: Owens is one of the more unlikely WWE stars of his generation. In the mid-1990s or earlier, WWE was more open to diverse body types, but particularly in the post Monday Night War era, WWE’s been invested in guys who are lean, guys who are jacked, not guys who wear t-shirts over their potbellies. After a distinguished career in the indies, however, Owens got a shot on NXT and took full advantage of the opportunity, becoming a magnificent hybrid jerk and monster heel. He carried the act over to the main roster where he promptly feuded with, and even traded victories with John Cena to become an instantly credible threat.
Owens slipped down the roster afterward until he was entrenched in the mid-card. Things took a turn in the summer of 2016, though, first with a borderline five-star PPV match with long-time rival Sami Zayn at the Battleground PPV, then his big break — winning the vacated WWE Universal Championship and thus becoming the top heel on Raw, if not the whole company. While Owens’s reign was uneven — terrific when he and Chris Jericho riffed off one another brilliantly on the mic, middling for Owens’s extended feuds without any great matches or particularly satisfying moments against Seth Rollins and Roman Reigns.
Just the same, that title reign asserted the potential in Owens — that he can deliver in the ring and on the mic regardless of how big the spotlight is, and with the credibility established in that multi-month reign, he has the potential to return to the top of the card again in the future.
42. The Miz
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Miz is a one-time WWE Champion, six-time Intercontinental Champion, two-time United States Champion, and six-time tag champ. He won Money in the Bank once and won a WrestleMania main event.
Best moment: The Miz cashed in his Money in the Bank opportunity on Randy Orton. It looked like he may have picked the wrong time, as Orton was beaten down but still competitive. Miz got the better of the short exchange, however, pinning Orton and winning the world title.
Rationale: Miz has had a strange, up and down career in WWE. He got his start via Tough Enough after a wrestling-crazed run on The Real World, and it quickly looked as though he’d be relegated to the lower card and hosting non-wrestling segments. Things took a turn during his run in WWE’s ECW, though, as Miz found his footing on the mic and in the ring, teamed with John Morrison. Before long, he made it to Raw and though he got trounced by John Cena in their first feud, he got some exposure as a mid-card act, and would go on to be largely dominant as a US Champ and tag champ with The Big Show, en route to a Money in the Bank-driven main event push.
The trouble is, when Miz did make the main event, despite getting over in fairly organic fashion, and being one of the best talkers in the game, the audience struggled to take him seriously. Maybe it was his name. Maybe it was his look. Maybe it was his reality TV background, or that he still wasn’t an elite in-ring performer, or that he didn’t get clean wins over true main event talents. In any event, the crowd did not accept him as the face of the company, and his run on top is largely viewed as a flop. Strangely enough, however, after a middling face run and some time away, Miz has gotten over again as top of the mid-card heels via a very good run holding or chasing the Intercontinental Championship. And maybe that’s who The Miz is — a terrific mid-card and even upper mid-card heel who fans love to hate and can love to hate as long as he doesn’t climb any higher, remaining his generation’s Honky Tonk Man rather than trying to be Randy Savage or Ted Dibiase.
41. Alberto Del Rio
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Del Rio was a four-time world champion and two-time United States Champion in WWE. He won the Royal Rumble and Money in the Bank once each.
Best moment: Del Rio debuted on WWE TV by dominating Rey Mysterio in one-on-one action, and forcing his celebrated fellow luchador to tap out clean. While Del Rio would have bigger objective accomplishment, he never looked better than against a dance partner who knew how to accentuate his strengths, and booked to look like a world-beater.
Rationale: Del Rio is one of the biggest talents of his generation — a silky smooth in-ring worker and an excellent talker with an excellent look. Word leaked early in his WWE run that he was intended to be a “big deal” “pretty quick,” and that project was quite a success early on as he quickly established himself toward the top of the SmackDown heel roster, and even won the forty-man Royal Rumble.
Del Rio wouldn’t make good on his destiny at WrestleMania 27, however, losing his World Heavyweight Championship match to reigning champ Edge, only to follow up that loss with a loss for the vacant title opposite Christian. Del Rio moved to the Raw brand soon after, and immediately came across as a square peg in a round hole, never looking comfortable, much less like a serious threat, even when he did win Money in the Bank and cash it in for his first world title reign.
And that would be the story of Del Rio from that point forward — all stop-start pushes, super over at first as a face but quickly vanilla as all hell; hot again when he double-turned with Dolph Ziggler to wind up heel again only to get stale quickly, and consistently job out to John Cena.
Cena. Cena might have been the key, as Del Rio left WWE under controversial circumstances, then made a surprise return and quickly, soundly got the better of Cena at Hell in a Cell 2015. This second act to Del Rio’s WWE career was an amazingly epic failure from that point forward, as he bounced from his weird and never fully explained MexAmerica alliance with Zeb Colter into the wildly underachieving League of Nations stable that earned its members a WrestleMania victory while otherwise managing to tank every last one of their stocks. Del Rio departed WWE again, and again did so under tense circumstances, with rumors of butting heads with management, and the specter of dragging real-life girlfriend Paige along with him.
Del Rio’s work elsewhere in recent years has proven he really is a special talent when used appropriately. Despite some great moments, and tremendous on-paper accomplishments, Del Rio and WWE never really meshed.
40. Mr. Perfect
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Mr. Perfect was a two-time Intercontinental Champion.
Best moment: Perfect pinned Ric Flair in a forgotten gem of a loser leaves WWF match on an early episode of Monday Night Raw.
Rationale: This is a tough one. Based on actual all-around talents of the man, Mr. Perfect could arguably crack the top ten. He was booked as a fringe main event talent for much of his best run, too, and as a solid mid-card veteran in his post-Monday-Night-War epilogue run. The thing is, for all of his talent, Perfect never won a world title, a Rumble, a King of the Ring tournament, a PPV main event, or much of anything else significant besides the IC title (more prestigious at the time, for sure, but still, a mid-carder’s title).
Perfect’s killer vignettes and promos, paired with his expert work in the ring make him impossible to rank lower, but given the limitations to his kayfabe accomplishments and his limited tenure as an in-ring performer in WWE (about four years cumulatively) it’s hard for him to climb any higher either.
39. Rob Van Dam
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Van Dam is a one-time WWE Champion, one-time WWE ECW Champion, six-time Intercontinental Champion, one-time European Champion, four-time Hardcore Champion, and three-time tag champ. He won the Money in the Bank briefcase once.
Best moment: Van Dam cashed in his Money in the Bank opportunity not by jumping a fatigued champ, but rather by booking himself into a serious homecourt advantage — challenging for the strap in front of a hostile, hardcore ECW crowd at the Hammersteing Ballroom that nearly booed reigning champ John Cena out of the building and that popped like crazy for RVD’s big title win.
Rationale: RVD is that strange talent who never quite clicked in WWE, but just the same was uniquely talented enough that he wasn’t a failure either. He came in red hot off of his work with the legitimate ECW promotion, one of the very few shining new stars of the InVasion angle who consistently got a response and even worked his way into the periphery of the main event for a brief period.
Particularly after the initial luster wore away, Van Dam would spend most of his time in the upper mid-card and tag scenes, occasionally rising higher like when he challenged Triple H for the World Heavyweight Championship, or when it came time for the aforementioned Money in the Bank angle which segued into what must have been intended as RVD’s run as the face of WWE’s ECW brand. RVD got busted with weed shortly thereafter, hence derailing his big push. There may be no short sequence of events to better encapsulate RVD’s WWE run and the culture clash inherent to it.
So RVD would never really reach legendary status in WWE, but he was a fun, offbeat upper mid-card act, and has added onto that with one-off appearances and a sustained run from 2013–2014 in which he was a slower, but still entertaining enough act.
38. Kevin Nash
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Nash was a WWF World Heavyweight Champion, Intercontinental Champion, and two-time WWF Tag Team Champion.
Best moment: While Nash certainly reached greater heights down the road — most prominently a nearly year-long world title reign — I don’t know that he was ever more fun, or more over than as an up and coming monster heel, and when he so dominantly tossed a then-record seven men from the 1994 Royal Rumble.
Rationale: While it would probably be more appropriate to rank Nash as Diesel — the name under which he garnered his greatest WWF success and entered the WWE Hall of Fame — that character name feels like a last vestige of a heavily gimmicked era before Nash would go on to greater success under his real name in WCW, and the WWF would move on to greater success with guys using either their real names, or at least first and last names that sounded like they could be somebody’s real name.
Enough about names, though. Diesel showed up in WWF to play Shawn Michaels’s bodyguard and promptly outshone his partner in crime — pushed via dominant runs in Survivor Series and Royal Rumble matches before breaking out on his own for good as a main event face after he squashed Bob Backlund for the world title at a Madison Square Garden house show. The title run to follow wouldn’t be pretty, highlighted by a WrestleMania match with Michaels and the Survivor Series bout when he dropped the title to Bret Hart, but arguably more memorable for flops against the likes of Mabel, Davey Boy Smith, and Sycho Sid. Diesel was better in a late-run heel turn, working against The Undertaker and revisiting his rivalry with Michaels, but he didn’t really get time to thrive in his prick-ish heel character before defecting to WCW (where he did largely nail it).
Nash’s legacy more or less stays put for his short, fun but ultimately ineffectual nWo run in 2002, and I’d argue he loses a step in the countdown for his mostly abysmal face run in 2003 where he worked a two bad PPV matches challenging Triple H for the World Heavyweight Championship (plus a middling six-man), and lingered around the main event scene a few months longer. I gave him a little extra credit, though, for his work in 2011 where his booking derailed CM Punk’s momentum, but he delivered at a higher level than he had any right to when he finally got in the ring with Triple H (their 2011 Ladder Match arguably better than any of their work together eight years earlier when they were both theoretically closer to their primes). Finally, he gets some bonus points for particularly fun cameos playing Diesel again in the 2014 Royal Rumble, and joining Hulk Hogan and Scott Hall as the nWo for one more night at WrestleMania 31.
37. Dolph Ziggler
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Ziggler is a two-time World Heavyweight Champion, five-time Intercontinental Champion, one-time United States Champion, and one-time World Tag Team Champion. He won Money in the Bank once.
Best moment: Ziggler cashed in his Money in the Bank opportunity on Alberto Del Rio the night after WrestleMania 29, for one of the most electric moments in Raw history.
Rationale: Ziggler is nothing if not a workhorse. He overcame being a middle-of-the-pack guy with the Spirit Squad, and a run as the awful caddy for Chavo Guerrero’s even awful-er Kerwin White gimmick, before finally becoming his own man — Dolph Ziggler. In this role, he spent four years atop the mid-card, testing the glass ceiling of main event status before finally getting a run with the world title (technically his second, but his first was spuriously won off a DQ victory and too short to matter). This run led to a double-turn with Alberto Del Rio as Ziggler became a face and promptly dropped back down to the upper mid-card. Despite some glimmers — serving as the hero for the face team that beat The Authority at Survivor Series 2014, challenging Dolph Ziggler for the WWE Championship at SummerSlam 2016 — he was rarely to be taken seriously as a main event threat in the years to follow.
Despite his failure to claim and retain top guy status, Ziggler has remained one of the most consistently outstanding in-ring performers of the last decade in WWE — wonderfully athletic, and a particularly strong seller.
36. Dean Ambrose
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Ambrose is a one-time WWE World Champion, one-time United States Champion, and one-time Intercontinental Champion. He won Money in the Bank once as well.
Best moment: Ambrose cashed in his Money in the Bank briefcase, the same night he won it, on former friend and long-time rival Seth Rollins to win the WWE Championship at Money in the Bank 2016.
Rationale: When The Shield arrived and promptly inserted themselves into the upper mid-card, Dean Ambrose was the leader of the pack — the first to attain singles old and more often than not the mouthpiece of the group. While Seth Rollins may have been the stronger pure in-ring worker, and Reigns had the better look, Ambrose was the more complete package, combining in-ring talents with personality and talking skills.
Things shifted when The Shield split. Rollins got the first shot at world title glory, and Reigns got a more solid main event level push. Ambrose’s outcomes were less even. While he was great in feuds with Seth Rollins and AJ Styles, his comedic work generally underwhelmed, and rivalries with the likes of Bray Wyatt and Chris Jericho largely fell flat — lacking in chemistry and energy.
Ambrose did at last win a world title at Money in the Bank 2016, a year after Rollins, a half-year later than Reigns, and, on the whole, performed well as the face of the early days of a rebranded SmackDown. The future will be telling as Ambrose, a character largely tailor fit to the Attitude Era, continues to find his footing in contemporary WWE. Time will tell how far Ambrose might rise.
Top kayfabe accomplishments: JBL was a WWE World Champion, Intercontinental Champion, United States Champion, European Champion, seventeen-time Hardcore Champion, and three-time WWE Tag Team Champion.
Best moment: JBL narrowly won a bloody Texas Bull Rope Match to relieve Eddie Guerrero of the WWE Championship at Judgment Day 2004.
Rationale: There are wrestlers with multiple acts to their careers, but rarely are two acts both so clearly delineated and so narrowly spaced apart than the transformation from nine-year veteran mid-card tag team specialist face bruiser Bradshaw into wealthy New York cowboy main event heel JBL. But when JBL moved to SmackDown, absent his long-time tag partner Faarooq, he blazed a new trail for himself.
To go in our proper order, though, Bradshaw was, himself, a worthy middle of the countdown performer in his own right, half of the iconic APA tag team who never quite broke the glass ceiling but broached the upper mid-card multiple times. JBL got a golden opportunity in a reimagining of Ted Dibiase’s Million Dollar Man gimmick, through which he promptly entered a main event program with Eddie Guerrero and, when Guerrero felt he couldn’t carry the strap at the time, JBL wound up the beneficiary, leading to an impressive nine-month reign in which he came to fully inhabit his character, thrive on the mic, and prove himself as a respectable main event heavyweight.
JBL would never re-attain these heights, settling into upper mid-card and occasional world title challenger for the rest of his in-ring career. Critics will say he was a stiff bully; supporters will say he was hard-nosed throwback wrestler of yore who took liberties when management asked him to and pulled no punches. Regardless, JBL remains a solid mid-carder who grew into an unlikely top heel of his day.
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Goldberg is a two-time world champion in WWE.
Best moment: Goldberg returned after over a decade away to shockingly squash Brock Lesnar in the main event of Survivor Series 2016.
Rationale: Goldberg is a strange guy to rank in this context. He worked for one year with WWE from 2003 to 2004, and has returned as a part-timer in recent months. That’s not much time to build a legacy (his best work, for sure, came in WCW) and thus I couldn’t justify him landing much higher in this list). Just the same, if we look at kayfabe success per month, or similar metrics that emphasize concentrated success rather longevity, and emphasize storyline accomplishments over quality of performance, there are very few stars who can compare to Goldberg. The guy debuted by soundly defeating The Rock, crushed Chris Jericho, decisively won his world title feud with Triple H (yes, Triple H did ultimately get the title back, but only after losing multiple attempts and then benefiting from substantial interference). Goldberg went on to beat Brock Lesnar at WrestleMania 20, then leave the wrestling business, only to destroy a seemingly-even-more-imposing Lesnar at Survivor Series 2016, and win the Universal Championship off of Kevin Owens.
Goldberg’s not much for work rate, and not an elite promo, but when booked as a face monster, he plays his part beautifully.
33. Chris Benoit
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Benoit was a World Heavyweight Champion, three-time United States Champion, four-time Intercontinental Champion, and four-time tag champ. He won a Royal Rumble and one WrestleMania main event.
Best moment: Benoit made Triple H tap out to win a world title in an exceptional Triple Threat Match (Shawn Michaels was the third man) that main evented WrestleMania 20.
Rationale: This is a tough one, and will justifiably be controversial. In terms of in-ring ability, Benoit is a top-five-ish talent, and performed at that highest of levels for seven years in WWE, including a world title reign that started with an epic WrestleMania main event win. On the flip side, his career ended with his life — when he killed his wife and son, then himself in an incident presumably brought on by long-term head injuries. To say that it was a black eye for Benoit’s career is a pretty big understatement. Heck, to say it was a black eye for the entire wrestling business is understating it, too.
If we can separate person from performer, however, it’s hard not to acknowledge Benoit’s greatness. While he was never a great promo, his technical skills, aerial talents, and all-around intensity were truly exceptional, and his pair of triple threat matches with Triple H and HBK, plus his matches with guys like Kurt Angle in the early 2000s are some of the very best in-ring work ever in WWE. So, he arrives here at number 33 — elite territory, but with a bit of demerit for his personal life story.
32. AJ Styles
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Styles was a WWE World Champion.
Best moment: The Styles-John Cena feud reached its peak at SummerSlam 2016, and Styles won their showdown clean in a truly exceptional match.
Rationale: It looked as though Styles would go down as the greatest wrestler of his generation never to make it to the big dance in WWE. Lo and behold, 2016 rolled around and Styles made his debut, direct to the main roster, in the Royal Rumble Match. He got a huge crowd reaction, performed well, and survived for nearly a half hour. Styles was a good, if slightly vanilla upper card face for the months to follow before entering a feud with Roman Reigns, going ‘tweener and then full-blown heel alongside The Club, and finally going full-on transcendent in feuds with John Cena and Dean Ambrose, out of which he became world champ.
At the time of writing, Styles has only been with WWE for a little over a year, so it’s difficult to fully quantify his legacy. Just the same, that run went from good to great quite quickly, including offering Reigns, Cena, and Ambrose each some of their very best WWE matches and entertaining audiences along the way.
31. Rey Mysterio
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Mysterio is a three-time world champ, two-time Intercontinental Champion, three-time Cruiserweight Champion, and four-time WWE Tag Team Champion. He won the Royal Rumble once.
Best moment: Mysterio pinned Randy Orton at WrestleMania 22 to win a Triple Threat Match (Kurt Angle was also involved) that earned him his first world championship.
Rationale: At 5’6” and a generously billed 175 pounds, Mysterio probably never should have been a big deal in pro wrestling, and particularly not in WWE, which traditionally gravitates toward bigger talents. It didn’t help that he’s never been a great promo guy. So how did Mysterio not only last in WWE for thirteen years but thrive — a multi-time world champion and fixture of the upper card-to-main event scene?
The answer: he’s just that good.
Mysterio, particularly in his younger days, was incredibly fast, agile, and innovative. Once WWE let him past the Cruiserweight division to regularly interact with heavyweights, he promptly rose, feuding with Eddie Guerrero, then culminating in his first world title reign at WrestleMania 22. From there, Mysterio was in and out of the main event scene, dipping back into the upper mid-card and Intercontinental Championship scene. Regardless of the storyline, regardless of the opponent, Mysterio’s in-ring performances were so shining that he remained an irresistible property in WWE for the length of his tenure, until age began to slow him down and catch up to him in the form of recurring injuries that put him out of action for much of (what was presumably) his final stretch with the company.
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Batista is a six-time world champ and four-time tag champ in WWE. He won the Royal Rumble twice and main evented WrestleMania twice.
Best moment: At Bragging Rights 2009, Batista turned heel in epic fashion, annihilating kayfabe ally Rey Mysterio whom he felt had cost him a world title opportunity. Batista had big wins and moments more likely to go down in wrestling history books, but this was a moment in which the righteous rage The Animal was so good at portraying was on full display.
Rationale: Batista’s an interesting, oddly contradictory figure in WWE history. While you could argue that he was sort of a chosen one when he got plugged into the Evolution stable, he was also pretty clearly a secondary concern as rising star relative to stablemate Randy Orton. Just the same, when Orton’s main event face push went awry, Batista was the beneficiary who found himself main eventing against Triple H at WrestleMania 21, and carrying the World Heavyweight Championship through the summer.
Then Batista returned to wrestling in late 2013 after two and a half years away, and was immediately reinserted into the main event scene only to be summarily rejected by the fans. The thing is, despite his early failings — that he was blah, that he had some ring rust, that he wasn’t Daniel Bryan — Batista wound up doing some excellent work once he turned heel. He delivered in the ring. He offered up great promos. Best of all? He successfully put over Daniel Bryan and later The Shield, thus forwarding the next generation of main event level stars.
Particularly based on his initial, full-time run from 2003–2010, Batista rates in kayfabe. He was never a particularly standout worker (though he did have some very good matches, particularly with The Undertaker), but between good booking and a sensational look, he remains a memorable, top-tier player in WWE history.
29. Roman Reigns
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Reigns is, at present, a three-time world champion, one-time United States Champion, and one-time tag champ. He won the Royal Rumble once and has main evented WrestleMania twice to date.
Best moment: Reigns pinned Sheamus on Monday Night Raw, December 2015, to win his second world title in front of the same Philadelphia crowd that had booed him out of the building after he won the Royal Rumble in front of them in January. The crowd received the moment nicely and, for at least one night, it looked as though he might have at last won over the larger fanship.
Rationale: Roman Reigns gets a lot of flack for being the chosen one — pushed alongside more polished talents Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose in the Shield stable upon his debut and promptly pushed to the moon as a singles wrestler thereafter. Despite the contrivances involved in that initial push, Reigns has largely risen to the challenge, growing sharper and more intense in the ring to go along with improving promos and mannerisms. Along the way, he’s delivered solid matches with the likes of Brock Lesnar, Seth Rollins, AJ Styles, and Rusev. In kayfabe, he’s on the very short list for top stars of the last five years.
If he continues on his current trajectory, there’s every chance for Reigns to rise further, as he both legitimately gets better and continues to get main event level opportunities. On the flip side, if he were to slip or the powers that be lost faith in him, he could certainly slip. That’s the tricky thing about putting current talents into historical perspective. For now, he lands safely around the thirty mark.
28. Jeff Hardy
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Hardy is a three-time world champion, four-time Intercontinental Champion, one-time European Champion, one-time Lightweight Champion, three-time Hardcore Champion, and seven-time tag champ in WWE.
Best moment: Hardy pinned long-time on-again off-again rival Triple H to win his first world championship at Armageddon 2008.
Rationale: Jeff Hardy is a true anomaly in WWE history. He was a memorable, charismatic character who worked all the way from jobber to legit main event talent, stayed with the company for roughly eight years, and even exhibited stellar in-ring work. Just the same, plenty of critics tend to dismiss him for his eccentricities and personal issues, minimizing his accomplishments by calling him a spot monkey.
While I’m not a Hardy loyalist or apologist, I do think he has a proper place in WWE history, first for his truly great tag team work with his brother opposite Edge and Christian and The Dudleys, then for his surprisingly successful singles career in which he moved up the card nicely from jobber to the stars, to solid mid-carder, to banging his head against the glass ceiling for most of 2008 before he finally won his first world title. He’d, in many ways, have his best year in 2009, featuring an exceptional feud — both in terms of storyline and matches — with CM Punk.
For sure, Hardy’s legacy would be all the better sans any suspensions or untimely departures from the active roster, but it is what it is, and he remains an undeniably vibrant part of WWE history.
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Yokozuna was a two-time WWF World Champion and two-time WWF Tag Team Champion. He won the 1993 Royal Rumble and main evented WrestleMania twice.
Best moment: After an accomplice posed as a cameraman blinded Hulk Hogan, Yokozuna slammed him and hit a leg drop to send Hogan packing, and win Yokozuna his second world title, which he’d hold for the better part of a year.
Rationale: It’s unfortunately easy to dismiss Yokozuna’s legacy given he presided over a down period for the WWF’s business and creative efforts after Hulk Hogan left for the long haul and wound up with WCW. Just the same, he was an objectively outstanding big man — enormous, sure, but also incredibly mobile for his size and thus believable as an instant main event threat. Thus, inside six months with the WWF, he rode an undefeated streak into a Royal Rumble victory (last eliminating Randy Savage in decisive fashion) and used his WrestleMania title shot to take the title off Bret Hart. While Hogan took the title briefly, Yokozuna won it back off him at the next PPV and spent most of the year to follow fending off Lex Luger and The Undertaker.
Not long after his main event run, Yokozuna’s health started flagging. Before long, he transitioned into an Andre the Giant-like role. He played the menacing big man partner to a guy more capable of carrying the load for in-ring work, as he backed Owen Hart on a memorable tag title run. He wrapped up his time with the WWF with a face turn, mostly feuding with Vader as the new monster on the block. All in all, Yokozuna didn’t have the longevity or classic matches to climb higher than this point in the countdown, but particularly his time as a main eventer, and his kayfabe credentials as an unstoppable force make him a top thirty talent for sure at this point in history.
26. The Ultimate Warrior
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Warrior won a WWF Championship and two Intercontinental Championships. He won one WrestleMania main event.
Best moment: Warrior dodged Hulk Hogan’s dreaded leg drop at the climax of their WrestleMania 6 main event showdown, and delivered a big splash to beat The Hulkster clean, taking the world title and seemingly receiving the torch as the new face of the WWF to carry the company forward into the 1990s.
Rationale: Warrior is such a difficult wrestler to rank. From a purely kayfabe standpoint, looking at him from a per-year perspective (and so, not penalizing him for only being around for about five-to-six cumulative years) and from the perspective of being an iconic character, you can make a real argument that Warrior should broach the top ten of this countdown. Consider him only as an in-ring worker, though, and add in the complications of his backstage behavior, and his short tenure, and he could quickly slip down to a fringe top-hundred pick. History treats Warrior strangely, too. When WWE got into the DVD business, an early project saw a completely dismantling of the former star — a documentary project called The Self-Destruction of The Ultimate Warrior. When Warrior mended fences to enter the Hall of Fame, though, and all the more so after his untimely passing days later, his legacy shifted back to legendary status.
How to split the differences and account for all of this? Based on Warrior’s status as a full-on icon from one of the WWF’s biggest boom periods, I felt he had to be in the top thirty. That he won a WrestleMania main event, won a world title, and beat Hogan clean (albeit all in one shot) has to count for something, too (not to mention his spectacular bout with Randy Savage at WrestleMania a year later). Based on longevity and lack of consistency of his in-ring performance, though, I didn’t see him as a top twenty guy. So he lands here — elite status, with his limitations. Regardless of who’s to a blame, it’s a shame we don’t have more Warrior memories from his prime to look back on. In his first run, he fit the cartoonish, non-work-rate-oriented WWF landscape like a glove, and probably could have had that much more to give were it not for his sabbatical from 1991 to 1992, or his absence from WWF programming in the early-mid nineties.
25. Ric Flair
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Flair won two world titles (remember this is a WWE-exclusive countdown, so the other fourteen (or so) don’t count), an Intercontinental title, and three World Tag Team Championships in WWE. He also won a Royal Rumble.
Best moment: Flair not only won, but survived the 1992 Royal Rumble, entering at number three and proceeding to put on a truly virtuosic performance running the gauntlet against virtually every big name in the WWF locker room only emerge victorious and the new world champ. The match proved Flair to the WWF audience that was still figuring him out, and set him on the road to WrestleMania opposite Randy Savage for a terrific feud and match.
Rationale: In a countdown that encompassed every wrestling organization in the US, Flair would rise meteorically through this countdown — for sure a top fiver, and maybe even number one. Flair built his legend under the NWA/Mid-Atlantic/WCW banner, though, and so most of his best material is out of eligibility. It’s remarkable, then, to think that Flair still cracks the top twenty-five with only two years in his prime and eight years in the twilight of his nearly-forty-year career up for consideration.
Flair’s 1991–1993 run was great. Though his technical in-ring style and were a bit of a round peg to the WWF’s square hole in this era, he nonetheless put on sensational performances in the aforementioned Rumble and WrestleMania 8 world title matches, besides playing the cocky heel nicely during this era. He wrapped up this tour of WWF with another top-tier outing, a bit of a forgotten gem of a Loser Leaves the WWF Match with Mr. Perfect on an early episode of Raw that sent The Nature Boy packing back for WCW.
Flair would be back after the WWF bought out WCW, and after the insanity of The InVasion had wrapped up, first to play an on-air authority figure, and quickly to enter the ring himself, first a face, then a heel veteran for the Evolution stable, and finally for a farewell face run. This run was solidly good, but not great, though he broached greatness a few more times, particularly in that last angle and most particularly in having one last truly tremendous match opposite Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania 24.
24. Eddie Guerrero
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Guerrero won the WWE Championship once, was a two-time Intercontinental and European Champion, a one-time United States Champion, and a four-time tag champ with WWE.
Best moment: Albeit with a major assist from Goldberg, Guerrero frog-splashed Brock Lesnar to win a world title at the No Way Out PPV in 2004, which allowed him to then carry the title into WrestleMania 20 (where he would successfully defend it).
Rationale: Guerrero joined WWE fourteen years into his career, in a high profile leap alongside friends and colleagues Chris Benoit, Dean Malenko, and Perry Saturn, as they collectively left WCW to pursue greater opportunity with the competition. Excluding an injury and a year away due to a drunk driving charge, Guerrero finished out the last five years of his career and life under the WWE banner.
Given his short time with WWE, Guerrero’s accomplishments there were limited, and I can’t deny a lot of us romanticize his run on account of his untimely passing. Just the same, Guerrero was great. Once he found his footing in WWE, he was immediately one of the most charismatic mid-card acts in company history. His hybrid courtship-rivalry with Chyna was compelling and unique, and he put in some excellent work with Benoit and Chris Jericho. Teaming up with nephew Chavo as Los Guerreros, Eddie found a further foothold as the team’s killer in-ring work got extra recognition their “Lie, Cheat, Steal” character mantra.
Guerrero was a beneficiary of the original brand split, though. I question if WWE would have given him a shot as “the guy” with just one world title in the mix, but with two, he was able to famously take the WWE Championship off Brock Lesnar, and go on to terrific feuds over the belt with Kurt Angle and JBL, before rounding out his WWE career engaging as frenemies with Rey Mysterio and then Batista.
I believe the general consensus is that Guerrero was at his best as a heel, but I’d go out on a limb to say he was one of those truly special performers who was sensational in both face and heel roles — a killer con artist bad guy, but downright inspirational as a fighting champion with a smidge of rogue cunning as a good guy. Pair this excellent character work with WWE all-time top-ten in-ring skills and you have the recipe for a great who was taken from us too soon.
23. Ted Dibiase
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Dibiase was a three-time WWF Tag Team Champion, one-time North American Champion, and King of the Ring in 1988 (before it was televised). He also innovated the Million Dollar Championship. Dibiase main evented WrestleMania once. He was sort of world champ once, though that reign generally isn’t recognized (more on that below).
Best moment: After months of getting the fans acclimated to his Million Dollar Man gimmick, Dibiase brought the character to its climax, paying off Andre the Giant and Bobby Heenan to do his bidding, buying off an evil twin referee, and all-in-all buying the WWF Championship — contriving circumstances for Andre to dirtily win the strap off of Hulk Hogan then hand it to Dibiase. The kayfabe WWF brass ultimately nullified the reign, but it was some brilliant heel chicanery and set up Dibiase to continue his pursuit of the title into WrestleMania 4.
Rationale: Dibiase is an all-time great in-ring worker, who somehow played an even better character — utterly inhabiting his Million Dollar Man gimmick to capture many of the best elements of Ric Flair’s limousine riding and Mr. McMahon’s megalomania in a dastardly heel role. He was easy to hate and delivered some of the best in-ring work of his era in the WWF as a main eventer, then as a rock solid upper mid-card act, and finally in the very successful Money Inc. tag team with IRS.
On the basis of talent, I could easily see ranking Dibiase about ten places higher in this countdown. Considering the kayfabe components, though, Dibiase was a victim of 1980s WWF booking and the late-1980s into early-1990s roster. Were he around and in his prime for the Attitude Era or more especially for a period of two world titles in a brand split, there’s little doubt Dibiase would have gotten at least a short run as a legit world champion. As it stands, he never quite crossed that barrier and remained a solid performer (but kayfabe) not great enough to ever quite get to the top of the business.
22. The Big Show
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Show is a four-time world champion. He’s a one-time WWE ECW, Intercontinental, and United States Champion. He’s an eight-time tag champ and winner of the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal. He main evented WrestleMania once.
Best moment: Show was an impromptu addition to a Survivor Series main event Triple Threat Match with The Rock and Triple H (subbed in after Steve Austion kayfabe got run over in the parking lot) and won the match to pick up his first world title.
Rationale: What The Big Show lacks for huge moments, great in-ring performances, or steady runs atop WWE, he makes up for in sheer longevity. He’s been signed with WWE for eighteen years, and while he has periodically gone on sabbatical or retreated to the mid-card, by virtue of his size and now his legacy, he’s one of a handful of guys WWE can readily plug into main event feuds, opposite new top talents, and against part-timers and who will always have the credibility to fit in.
Show started out with the WWF green — fresh off a WCW run in which he grew famous but was unrefined as a talent. Under the WWF banner, he grew into a solid big man performer in the ring and an (underrated) excellent talker. While he’s rarely been full-on great as a stand-alone main event worker (though his recent Raw main event with Braun Strowman was alarmingly great), he’s proven himself excellent as a second-tier face or heel — a victim of The Authority’s machinations as a teary-eyed face in the fall of 2014; an unstoppable heater for Chris Jericho in their JeriShow during tag team run.
Show’s best days are behind him for sure, and there’s a fair argument he’s worn out his welcome, too steady of a presence toward the top of the card now at the expense of newer guys getting opportunities on top. Just the same, as long as he remains mobile and effortful it’s hard to argue against him having a secure supporting spot.
21. Seth Rollins
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Rollins is a two-time world champion, United States, and WWE Tag Team Champion in WWE. He won the Money in the Bank briefcase, and used it to insert himself into his one, technical, WrestleMania main event to date (he joined the match in progress for to steal the win in the final minute).
Best moment: Each of Rollins’s world title wins was pretty spectacular in almost opposite ways — the latter for earning the straight-up win after a terrific match, but I’m giving it to the former win, Rollins cashing in Money in the Bank in the most corrupt fashion since Edge, joining Roman Reigns vs. Brock Lesnar at WrestleMania 31 fifteen minutes into match. He promptly stole the pin off of fallen former-friend Roman Reigns, in electric fashion.
Rationale: WWE launched The Shield as a three-man team of blue-chippers that featured two top guys who’d worked their way up through the indies to the top of developmental, and one legacy with a great look and great aura. Indy vet Dean Ambrose came across as the de facto leader of the group; Roman Reigns had eventual main eventer written all over him based on his physical build and the mini-pushes WWE afforded throughout The Shield run (including dominant runs in Survivor Series and Royal Rumble matches). Rollins looked to be the odd man out — arguably the best hand in the ring, but the guy with the least defined personality who seemed susceptible to getting lost in the shuffle. Instead, WWE swerved us all when, after a great initial run with The Shield, Rollins turned heel on his buddies.
Over the year and a half to follow, Rollins was first the de facto top heel when part-timer Brock Lesnar was away, then the real deal arch-villain in the WWE Universe after Rollins stole the world title during the WrestleMania 31 main event. He proceeded to all but carry the WWE’s in-ring product with great performance after great performance — some very good matches against worthy opponents like John Cena, Dean Ambrose, Randy Orton, and Lesnar; respectable outings with guys who were past their prime like Sting and Kane. Rollins also came into his own, not an all-time great talker, but perfectly solid on the mic.
Rollins has struggled in his new role as a face — still terrific in the ring, but middling as a character since the transition. I’ll argue much of the fault rests with the booking, starting with a passive face turn when former ally Triple H turned heel-er on him and cost him a Universal Championship match, followed by generic face promos. As such, there is the risk Rollins could stagnate and ultimately not feel like a guy who deserves this high a spot on the countdown. I’m holding out faith that his sheer talent and work ethic will either help him work out his face role and continue to climb, or he’ll get recast as a heel and get back to tearing it up on that side of the fence.
20. Randy Orton
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Orton is a twelve-time world champion, Intercontinental Champion, and two-time tag champ. He won a Royal Rumble and a Money in the Bank, and was notably the youngest performer to ever win a world title in WWE. He has main evented WrestleMania twice.
Best moment: An oddball pick for sure (more objectively, I probably should go with him pinning Chris Benoit to win his first world title), but I’ve always loved when Orton nailed Stacey Keibler with an RKO in the build to WrestleMania 21. The guy originally got over as a simultaneously self-absorbed and vicious son of a gun, before his main event level face turn neutered all of the interesting aspects of his character. In the build to ‘Mania 21, he decided to go hunting for The Undertaker’s undefeated streak, and signaled that he was going full-tilt villain again.
Rationale: Randy Orton is an explosive, athletically gifted performer who has succeeded as both a cocky young douchebag, and as a twisted, borderline psychotic villain. He’s got an all-time great finisher in the RKO and has had great matches and rivalries opposite guys including The Undertaker, John Cena, and Daniel Bryan.
It’d be easy to argue Orton should go higher in this countdown, and were the ranking based purely on kayfabe, I probably would move him more toward the top fifteen. Just the same, I can’t help but remember all of the times Orton has come up short as a performer — boring a generation of fans to tears with his insufferably chin-lock oriented offense, not to mention the degree to which his first WrestleMania main event with Triple H stunk up the joint (particularly disappointing after their electric, violent build up to the match). From what I’ve heard, Orton takes remarkably good care of his body, including icing religiously and getting more sleep than virtually any wrestler ever — the kind of moves that could add years to his career if he wants them. Is it possible that Orton’s best is yet to come? It’s possible — and his strong recent work with Bray Wyatt suggests it really could be around the corner — and so he may well earn his way up a few spots in the next iteration of a countdown like this.
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Kane is a two-time world champion, one-time WWE ECW champ, two-time Intercontinental Champion, twelve-time tag champ, and one-time Money in the Bank winner. Though he’s never won a Royal Rumble he notably holds the record for both most Royal Rumble matches participated in, and most cumulative Rumble eliminations of other wrestlers.
Best moment: Kane debuted by tearing the door off of the original Hell in a Cell, storming the ring, and Tombstone piledriving his kayfabe brother The Undertaker.
Rationale: It’s shocking that The Undertaker has lasted as long he has, and remained as immensely credible for as long as he has. It’s little less nuts to think that Glenn Jacobs — playing an Undertaker spin-off character, after working as an evil dentist and as an imitation version of Diesel — would wind up sticking around for two decades, have world titles to his credit, and have his world title wins twelve years apart from one another, as if simply to underscore his longevity. But Kane is a compelling monster character all his own, spiced by his long, irrational journey from straight-up horror monster, to humanized recovering trauma victim, back to monster, to unexpectedly skillful comedic player (evinced by his Attitude Era impersonation work, and later in his Team Hell No pairing with Daniel Bryan).
Kane is a durable, agile big man and built a career off of always lurking as a threat, and crossing face-heel lines with unparalleled fluidity. While I have to assume he only has so many years left in the tank, by the same token, it wouldn’t altogether shock me if he still lurked somewhere in or around the WWE main event scene a decade from now.
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Edge is an eleven-time world champ, fourteen-time tag champ, five-time Intercontinental Champion, and one-time United States Champion. He was Royal Rumble winner, King of the Ring, and won the inaugural Money in the Bank briefcase (he kinda-sorta won the third won, too, by unconventional means). He main evented WrestleMania once.
Best moment: Twice at WrestleMania, Edge delivered iconic and truly insane-looking spears that seemed to metaphorically represent him leaping forward in his career. The spear off a ladder at WrestleMania 17 was ultimately probably the more dangerous spot, but I’m going to give it to bare-chested Edge spearing Mick Foley through the ropes into a flaming table at ‘Mania 22 in a move that arguably cemented Edge as a main event level talent for the rest of his career.
Rationale: For a guy who never really became an icon, who fair-weather fans might dismiss as a tag guy or mid-carder based on his Attitude Era beginnings, Edge has a deceptively sensational resume for his decade-plus as an active wrestler with WWE. He’s a good talker — particularly good at being silly with tag partner Christian, but also a strong provocateur heel once he ascended to the main event.
Nicknamed the Rated R Superstar, Edge made his move up the card after a real-life affair with Lita went public and she became his on-air femme fatale sidekick. From then on, Edge’s biggest claim to fame was a salacious, edgy (no pun intended) heel in a period several years removed from Attitude, when the product as a whole had gone more vanilla. This identity facilitated him feeling like a genuinely unique character in his time, and provided a worthy backdrop for folks to pay attention to his strong in-ring game as he went on to some legitimately great in-ring feuds, most notably opposite The Undertaker and John Cena.
17. Brock Lesnar
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Lesnar is a four-time world champ, Royal Rumble and King of the Ring winner who has main evented WrestleMania twice.
Best moment: While I’m tempted to give the best moment nod to his insane 2014 SummerSlam squash of John Cena to win his most recent world championship, I’ve got to go, instead, with his even more shocking, if less entertaining victory over The Undertaker at WrestleMania 30 to end The Dead Man’s two-decade-plus undefeated streak at ‘Mania.
Rationale: From a purely physical perspective, Brock Lesnar may be the platonic ideal of a professional wrestler. He has best look this side of Sid. He’s incredibly strong. Incredibly fast. Incredibly agile. Add onto that a legit amateur pedigree and, for his second run, the skills and cred of a UFC heavyweight champ and there’s little competing with The Beast Incarnate.
Lesnar’s first run largely lived up to his potential. At first, he was an unstoppable monster, destroying The Hardys and Hulk Hogan, before running through the King of the Ring tournament en route to dismantling The Rock to win his first world title. He went on to have stellar matches with Kurt Angle and The Undertaker. The best parts of Lesnar’s second run have been even better — his ultra-violent comeback match against John Cena, and his give-no-craps battering of lesser men in the years to follow.
The limiting factors for Lesnar have been time and attitude. For after two years that consisted of mostly dominance and unparalleled achievement, Lesnar walked away from WWE. When he came back, it was as a part-time talent who didn’t work matches on free TV or stick around for more than three months at a stretch, even when he held the world title. Furthermore, despite a handful of genuinely great matches in his part-time run (opposite John Cena, CM Punk, Roman Reigns, and The Undertaker (the year after he ended the streak), his WrestleMania matches with ‘Taker, Dean Ambrose, and to a lesser extent Triple H have told a different story — paint-by-numbers, looking lackadaisical.
One of the great philosophical questions of post-Attitude Era WWE comes down to what would have happened if Lesnar hadn’t left wrestling at all. Would he have thrived as the face of wrestling for a decade? Would John Cena have been his second fiddle? Or would Cena’s work ethic and charm have won out and compensated for lesser physical gifts in favor of a great company man’s reign atop the business while Lesnar became just another upper card guy? We’ll never know for sure. Maybe Lesnar’s legacy is better for never having had the time to dip. Just the same, without that time, there will always remain a question as to whether he might have risen even higher.
16. CM Punk
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Punk was a five-time world champion, Intercontinental, World Tag Team, and (WWE’s version of) an ECW champ. He won the Money in the Bank briefcase twice.
Best moment: Punk delivered one of wrestling’s all-time most iconic promos — the infamous worked shoot “Pipebomb” — seated cross-legged on the stage to close a summer 2011 episode of Raw.
Rationale: When you talk about WWE’s great workers, Punk rates — though not on par with the Bret Harts, Shawn Michaels, or Daniel Bryans of the world, he falls just a notch below them. He put on high-four-star to five-star matches opposite Bryan, John Cena, The Undertaker, Brock Lesnar, and Chris Jericho. Moreover, he was a simply fantastic talker. Though he’ll be best remembered for his transcendent Pipebomb promo, his work as an upper mid-card face, and all the more so his early heel work into the Straight Edge Society was truly excellent as well.
Punk was in the unenviable position of constantly fighting the system, struggling for his spot from the beginning, only to then segue into the uncomfortable spot of holding the world title (including one reign that stretched for over a full calendar year) without ever really being the man, as John Cena in particular, plus part-timers The Rock, Brock Lesnar, and Triple H tended to get higher priority in the broader scheme of WWE marketing and card placement for the biggest shows (a big part of why Punk never got his WrestleMania main event).
Were Punk’s sour disposition and eventual WWE walkout his responsibility, and the reasons why he slammed against WWE’s glass ceiling, or was the glass ceiling the reason Punk soured and retired early? It’s a debate without end, without resolution, and it’s unfortunate that this conundrum limited Punk to only six and a half years with WWE, and only worked to his potential for about half that time. So, he lands in the middle teens when there’s a real possibility Punk could have wound up in the top ten of a countdown like this.
15. Roddy Piper
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Piper won the Intercontinental and Tag Team Championships in WWE, and worked the original WrestleMania main event.
Best moment: Because I’m limiting this countdown to WrestleMania 1 and onward, and WWE only, some of Piper’s most iconic stuff is out of contention. So, I’m going to give it to Hot Rod playing WWF President and pursuing Goldust in an OJ Simpson-style high-speed car chase only to pummel him some more in front of the live crowd at WrestleMania 12.
Rationale: Roddy Piper quite arguably peaked just before (or maybe even at) the original WrestleMania, so he’s certainly at a disadvantage for this countdown. Just the same, he was the hottest heel in the business who was instrumental in helping Hulk Hogan become as big of a star as he was and helping the WWF brand take flight at that time. Piper would continue to work heel, take a sabbatical and come back to theoretically finish up his wrestling career a face, putting Adrian Adonis to sleep at WrestleMania 3.
Piper would be back a couple years later, firmly entrenched as a legend upper-mid-card act, in a run highlighted by a brief Intercontinental Championship reign designed to put over Bret Hart. After some more time away, Piper came back as the kayfabe WWF President to feud with various heels, most prominently Goldust. He’d finish out his best in-ring years with WCW, but return for a number of short runs as a part-time legend, rekindling his issue with Hogan one last time, picking up a tag title reign with Ric Flair, and working alongside Ricky Steamboat and Jimmy Snuka against Chris Jericho at WrestleMania 25.
Piper was a solid brawler and remarkable for his longevity. But far more important than any of that to Hot Rod’s legacy and my estimation of this countdown, he may well be the greatest talker in wrestling history, period — superb when working on his own behalf, and similarly great for decades to follow, even as a visiting legend, who stopped by to put over young guys and add extra gravitas to big matches (see his November 2010 promo about why John Cena couldn’t gift Wade Barrett the WWE Championship for just one example).
14. Mick Foley
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Foley is a three-time world champion, eight-time tag team champion, and one-time Hardcore Champion in WWE. He main evented WrestleMania once.
Best moment: Mick Foley took wrestling’s two biggest and most famous bumps in a single match, after The Undertaker threw him off the top of Hell in a Cell through an announce table, then through the roof of the cage to the mat below. It wasn’t enough to finish him off in the match (though he did eventually lose) or for the night (he made a run-in during the main event less than an hour later).
Rationale: Mick Foley is one of WWE’s most diverse performers for sure — thriving in super-violent hardcore situations, and shining just as brightly as comedic character. The guy’s surest claim to greatness under the WWE banner, however, was putting over guys who would become major superstars. He got a start as a fresh, fundamentally different opponent for Shawn Michaels and The Undertaker. After he’d successfully put over both of them, he went on to let The Rock, Triple H, Randy Orton, and Edge perpetrate unspeakable violence upon him in the form of chair shots, barbed wire gouging, thumb tacks to the back galore, and flaming tables. In each of these instances, an blue-chip upper mid-carder asserted his manhood by not so much beating as surviving the insanity of a feud and bloody blow off match against Foley.
While Foley was never a shining star when it came to technical or aerial wrestling, he deserves far more credit than the “glorified stuntman” label Ric Flair and other critics tried to saddle him with at various points — a solid brawler, and an athlete capable of legitimately absorbing ridiculous physical punishment, only to keep on going. Add to that stellar mic skills and a unique brand of magnetism with the fans, and it all adds up to an all-time great talent.
13. Daniel Bryan
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Bryan is a four-time world champ, one-time Intercontinental champ, one-time United States champ, and one-time tag champ. He won the Money in the Bank briefcase once and won one WrestleMania main event.
Best moment: After beating Triple H to open the night in an excellent match, Bryan beat Randy Orton and Batista in a Unified World Championship main event at WrestleMania 30, and proceeded to celebrate with his family as confetti rained down.
Rationale: After a hero’s turn and a happy ending at WrestleMania 30, Bryan’s cumulative head injuries put him out of action. He was forced into retirement inside a year.
Given more time, you have to wonder just how high Bryan might have reached. With the time he did have — a five-year stretch — Bryan rose out of the indy ranks to be an underappreciated underdog of NXT (before it was brand, when it was faux-reality show), got fired at the launch of The Nexus angle that might have been his big break, came back to fight The Nexus in an even bigger break, worked as a solid mid-carder, got a shot at the main event as comedic heel, over-performed wildly as tag team partners with Kane, then exploded onto the main event scene via unparalleled work rate, and his infectious “Yes!” chant. It would be difficult to call Bryan a great talker (he wasn’t bad, but his promos weren’t his greatest strength), but he connected with fans at a level that exceeded all but WWE’s all-time greatest legends (we’re talking the Hulk Hogan, Steve Austin, Rock kinds of guys), earning a groundswell of organic fan support.
In short, Bryan was quite arguably a top-five all-time in-ring talent who exceeded any plans WWE had for him to burn brightly before his body gave out and he burned out too soon.
12. Chris Jericho
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Jericho is a six-time world champion (including the WCW Championship after the WWF had absorbed it), record-holding nine-time Intercontinental Champion, seven-time tag team champ, one-time European Champion, and one-time Hardcore Champion. He main evented WrestleMania once.
Best moment: While there are countless more polished moments to follow, I’m going with Jericho at his most electric — pinning Triple H to win the world title for the first time in a decision that was quickly repealed. The win generated one of Monday Night Raw’s all-time biggest pops and signaled that Jericho would become a main event guy in the years ahead.
Rationale: Chris Jericho is one of wrestling’s great in-ring workers and talkers, but his greatest accomplishment of all may be his ability to evolve and adapt with the times. He came in as a heel who could talk with a flashy move set. He evolved into a red hot up and coming face, before he became a full-fledged main event heel, then settled in as an anchor of the upper-mid-card, on the edges of the main event for years to follow. After a sabbatical, he came back as a slightly vanilla face only to evolve into one of the best heels in wrestling history, revisiting a feud with Shawn Michaels and forming an unlikely, sensational tag team with Big Show. He left and came back to play the brash veteran heel challenger to CM Punk’s world title reign, then left once more to come back for what started out as a lukewarm heel run only to lead into palling around with top heel Kevin Owens and carrying around “The List.” All of that led to the hot face turn he’s working right now.
TL;DR: The past seventeen years have told a story of Jericho coming and going, slipping down the card only to work his way back up through brilliant character work to augment his stellar in-ring and on-mic efforts. He’s scarcely been the ma, evinced by having just one WrestleMania main event to his name, and no Royal Rumble, King of the Ring, or Money in the Bank wins on his resume. Just the same, he’s been a rock solid guy to hold the top titles at intervals and remain an engaging supporting player otherwise.
11. Andre the Giant
Top kayfabe accomplishments: For the size of his legend, Andre had deceptively few tangible accolades to his name. He did win the WWF World Championship once under spurious circumstances and the Tag Team Championship once. Besides that, he had a spurious undefeated streak for fifteen years or so that set him up to challenge Hulk Hogan for the world title in a WrestleMania main event.
Best moment: While it may seem backwards, I’m going to call it for playing the perfect, insurmountable villain for Hulk Hogan to body slam and overcome in the main event of WrestleMania 3, in front 93,000-ish fans.
Rationale: Andre the Giant rose to prominence and had his best years as an in-ring worker before the first WrestleMania, and was never much of a talker. Just the same, when Vince McMahon did essentially reboot the WWF product, Andre was one of the cornerstones — an iconic, recognizable physical specimen fans young and old couldn’t help but look at it in awe for his immensity — a legit 7’4” tall and 500 pounds.
Andre’s appearances at the first four WrestleManias nicely encapsulate what he was and how the WWF used him in this era. The first time out, he engaged in a Body Slam Match with Big John Studd — a match that, by its design, could hardly be any good but was an entertaining spectacle for the size of the two men involved. The next year, he won a massive battle royal that was half WWF wrestlers, half NFL football players. The year after that, he was immovable object for Hogan to overcome. The year after that, he worked Hogan again in a brief, forgettable bout, but was more notable as villainous Million Dollar Man Ted Dibiase’s backup throughout the four-round tournament for the vacant world title, skillfully interfering in match after match, culminating in Randy Savage having to call in Hogan for his own backup to neutralize the Giant.
Andre was one of a kind. Pre-‘Mania, he made a career of traveling to different territories as the cavalry for local heroes, never sticking around for too long. By the first WrestleMania he was twenty-two years into his career and largely broken down, but the WWF nicely milked his final years as a top face, his shrewdly booked venture into heeldom for three years, and one final nostalgia run. For that last leg, he was less of an in-ring performer than a legend to backup contemporary good guys, and nicely play the victim, particularly helping Earthquake’s push as the new dominant giant after he took a beating from the big Canadian.
10. Triple H
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Triple H is a fourteen-time world champion, five-time Intercontinental Champion, two-time European Champion, and three-time tag champ. He won the Royal Rumble twice and the King of the Ring tournament once. He has main evented WrestleMania on seven occasions.
Best moment: Arguably the top pure heel of his generation, Triple H defied the odds and became the first heel world champ to retain his title at WrestleMania in the main event to WrestleMania 2000, a Fatal Fourway in which he fended off The Rock, Mick Foley, and The Big Show via nefarious means and in so doing drew nuclear heat.
Rationale: Triple H is a talented all-around wrestler, sure, but regardless of what proportion is luck or design, I suspect he’ll go down as wrestling’s all-time shrewdest politician. He entered the wrestling without a legacy — no family roots in the business or friends to get him a shot. After middling success in WCW, he jumped to the WWF and immediately joined up backstage with Shawn Michaels, Razor Ramon, Diesel, and The 1–2–3 Kid, a real-life group known as The Kliq. This group not only accelerated Helmesley’s course of study of as a wrestling apprentice, but offered him significant political clout from an early stage. From there, he’s gone on record to say that he saw the writing on the wall — that his contemporaries Steve Austin and The Rock would be duking it out for top face of their era, so he’d position himself as the top bad guy to oppose them. The plan worked to a tee, as all three wound up icons. Helmesley proceeded from there to marry the boss’s daughter, Stephanie McMahon, to become a part of the McMahon family, which opened the door to an executive role. Today, he’s inarguably one of the top five most powerful figures backstage in WWE, and arguably second only to Vince McMahon himself. (Side note: I’m not suggesting Helmesley married McMahon for solely or even mostly political purposes — while some have, I’m not that cynical.)
But back to Triple H as a wrestler, he succeeded in transitioning from a generic Blue Blood gimmick, to the core member and eventual leader of the cutting edge Degeneration X stable, to heel mastermind world champion, to part-time grizzled veteran with unparalleled credibility. While he’s never quite crossed the work rate threshold of a Shawn Michaels or Bret Hart, his sense of psychology has placed him just one echelon beneath that caliber of legend, with his rock solid talking game and killer physique pushing him another nudge forward, to earn a spot as one of WWE’s greatest Superstars of all time.
9. John Cena
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Cena is a sixteen-time world champion, five-time United States Champion, and four-time tag champ in WWE. He won two Royal Rumbles and one Money in the Bank briefcase. He has main evented WrestleMania five times.
Best moment: In front of a deeply skeptical, hostile crowd in Chicago, Cena retained his WWE Championship against Triple H in the main event of WrestleMania 22 when he forced his favored challenger to tap out clean.
Rationale: Though Cena’s status as face of WWE was diminished by lukewarm crowd responses (particularly from the adult male audience), he nonetheless reigned at or near the top of WWE for over a decade — arguably longer than anyone else this side of Bruno Sammartino. Along that period of time he’s obviously been a merchandise mover, catering toward kids, but on top of that quietly evolved into a stellar in-ring worker to match his level of kayfabe accomplishment, holding up his end of the bargain for legitimately great matches against the likes of Edge, CM Punk, Daniel Bryan, and most recently AJ Styles, besides all but carrying guys like The Great Khali to better matches than he had any right to.
Perhaps most impressive of all is the degree to which Cena has lived his gimmick. He has avoided real-life scandal, personal problems, or drug issues that could have derailed him, granting more Make a Wish visits than anyone, wrestler, or not, and proving borderline superhuman in both his durability and recuperative powers — rarely injured and, when he is, more often than not returning ahead of prognoses.
8. The Undertaker
Top kayfabe accomplishments: The Dead Man won seven world championships, one Hardcore Championship, and seven tag titles. He won the Royal Rumble once, went undefeated at WrestleMania for twenty-one years (for an overall record, to date, of 23–1).
Best moment: Man this is hard, but I’m going to go with iconic. In the second-ever Hell in a Cell Match, The Undertaker not only won after Tombstone piledriving Mankind onto a bunch of thumbtacks, and not only threw Mankind off the top of the Cell through an announce table, but also choke slammed Mankind straight through the roof of the Cell to the mat below in an unparalleled display of barbarism.
Rationale: The Undertaker is a unique talent in WWE lore. He’s had great matches and evolved into a great worker in the latter stages of his full-time career, but I wouldn’t exactly argue he’s in the conversation for best in-ring talents. He came to cut solid promos, but isn’t really one of the business’s great talkers. But when it comes to pure character work, and more particularly evolving with the times, The Phenom is pretty much untouchable. He debuted as a zombie in the fading days of cartoon gimmicks and made it work. He transitioned to a demonic cult leader character that was legitimately terrifying. He took a sharp left turn and became a badass biker for a few years. Then, he returned to a kinda-undead, kinda MMA-fighter hybrid and wrestled the best matches of his career.
There’s never been, and I don’t know that there ever again will be a talent quite like The Undertaker, who thrived on the WWE landscape for a quarter-century, and whose ‘Mania undefeated streak is one of the most legitimately impressive and captivating milestones any wrestler ever achieved. When he returned in late 2016, regardless of being banged up and fifty-one years old, it was not so much surprising as inevitable. I don’t know that I’d bet against The Undertaker returning even after Mark Calloway is dead and buried.
7. Bret Hart
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Hart won five WWF Championships, two Intercontinental Championships, two Tag Team Championships, and a late-in-career, largely ceremonial United States Championship. He won the Royal Rumble and the King of the Ring tournament, and main event WrestleMania three times.
Best moment: This is an idiosyncratic pick to be sure, but I’m going to go with putting over Davey Boy Smith in front of 80,000-plus fans at Wembley Stadium in the main event of SummerSlam 1992 for the Intercontinental Championship. It was one of the greatest WWF matches of all time, the highlight of Smith’s career, and paved the way for Hart to win his first world title less than two months later. (Fun side note — this was Hart’s first PPV main event; eighteen years later, he’d have his last PPV main event at another SummerSlam, as part of a fourteen-man tag match opposite The Nexus).
Rationale: To be transparent, Bret Hart is my favorite wrestler of all-time. He was exactly the super-skilled plucky underdog I needed as a kid, and I’d love to rank him higher on the countdown. Were we to base the countdown purely on in-ring talent, there would even be a real argument to do so — there’s absolutely no question he’s in the top five in that category. Hart loses some ground, however, when it comes to mic skills and drawing power. Though he eventually evolved into a very respectable talker, particularly in his final heel run in 1997, he’s not making anyone’s top twenty-five list for best interview. And while I do think there’s legitimacy to the claim that he was a huge international star for the WWF (particularly in Canada and Western Europe) he can’t really compare with guys like Hulk Hogan, Steve Austin, The Rock, or even John Cena when it comes to generating mass interest and merchandise sales at the top of the card.
Hart is great, though — responsible for a disproportionately high number of great WWF matches from 1991 to 1997, and a rock solid hand at every level of the card from the tag ranks, to the IC title scene, to the main event. Were it not for the excessively documented Montreal Screwjob that cut his WWF run short in his prime, he may have had the opportunity do even more interesting things with another few years in the WWF ring to round out his portfolio. As it stands, I’m glad he did eventually find s way home to WWE to add a coda to the end of his career.
6. Kurt Angle
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Angle won an array of championships in WWE — six world titles (counting the spurious WCW World Championship after WWE absorbed it), plus reigns with the Intercontinental, European, United States, Hardcore, and Tag Team Championships, plus a King of the Ring tournament win. He main evented WrestleMania 19.
Best moment: As great as Angle’s character work was (and it was remarkably good, remarkably fast) he was even better as an in-ring talent. I’m going to call his best moment his victory over Chris Benoit at the Royal Rumble 2003 PPV. The longstanding rivals competed over Angle’s WWE Championship. Though Angle played a conniving, cowardly heel role overall, he shone in nonetheless securing the clean submission victory at the end of this great wrestling match. (This pick narrowly edges out the feel-good moment captured in the video below — that and the milk truck.)
Rationale: Two of the most remarkable parts of Angle’s terrific less-than-eight-year run with WWE: he entered the fray with no outside pro wrestling background and was very justifiably a world champion within his first year and the best work of his career arguably came after he was done with WWE, working with TNA.
It’s understandable that with his legit Olympic gold medal pedigree, Angle would pick up the in-ring side of wrestling quickly, and sure enough, he combined grappling with explosive power moves, an aerial attack, and believable brawling to quickly rise to the top of that arena. On top of that, Angle’s character work was superb, starting as a cocky, too-wholesome character who was quickly received as a heel, before moving on to more serious grizzled wrestler gimmick later in his WWE run. Angle, therein, demonstrated extraordinary range to thrive in both comedic and serious roles, all the while putting on outstanding matches against the likes of Chris Benoit, Chris Jericho, Steve Austin, The Rock, Brock Lesnar, and Shawn Michaels. Angle’s final stretch under the WWE banner may best illustrate how the promotion ultimately understood him — he was a serious threat off which John Cena gained credibility as the fledgling face of Monday Night Raw, then got shipped over to SmackDown when injuries demanded a new main event anchor there. Months later, he was off to ECW to help lend immediate credibility to that new brand before he medical and personal issues caught up to Angle and he left WWE.
He’ll enter the Hall of Fame this year — an overdue inductee, and a guy I think we’re all happy to see return to the WWE fold.
5. The Rock
Top kayfabe accomplishments: The Rock is a ten-time world champion in WWE (the waters are murky as all heck given those spurious reigns with the WCW World Championship after the WWF had absorbed it, but I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt), Royal Rumble winner, two-time Intercontinental Champion, five-time Tag Team Champion. He main-evented WrestleMania five times (including an eleven year gap between the third and fourth times).
Best moment: This’ll be sure to spark some disagreement, but I’m going to give it to his unannounced and positively mind-blowing return to Raw after a seven year absence from WWE programming and having, in the interim, become a bona fide movie star.
Rationale: On one hand, The Rock is, bar none, the biggest mainstream star to have ever started out a pro wrestler. While wrestling offered him a launching pad, Rock achieved his greatest heights not as a wrestler (unlike, for example, Hulk Hogan, Steve Austin, or John Cena who became such wrestling luminaries that they registered on the broader pop culture radar), but as an actor and broader celebrity personality.
If anything, it’s more impressive then that Rock was a world-class wrestling talker, character, and in-ring performer who soared to virtuosic heights opposite contemporaries Austin and Triple H. He had a lightning fast, razor sharp wit that allowed him to shred opponents on the mic, the look and in-ring skill to be completely credible as a wrestler, and steadily improved over the course of his six-year career. That stretch, alone, would be enough to place him in the top ten for sure, but Rock shores up the number five spot in this countdown for returning to the WWE fold in 2011 as a recurring part-time talent, to engage in a pair of dream match WrestleMania main events with John Cena, not to mention two excellent bouts with insurgent CM Punk and a host of other solid cameos. Who knows? Had Rock stuck with wrestling more exclusively, he might have climbed even higher on this list for more time to win championships, not to mention time to get even better as an all-around performer. Then again, had he not become such a success outside wrestling, maybe by now we’d take him for granted in the wrestling world.
4. Randy Savage
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Savage is a two-time world champion in WWE, won the King of the Ring tournament (before it was televised, 1987), main evented two WrestleManias, and won the Intercontinental Championship once.
Best moment: While I very nearly (and, more objectively, probably should have given it to) Savage’s first world title win at WrestleMania 4, I have to give it to my all-time favorite WrestleMania moment of Savage, after losing a classic to The Ultimate Warrior and getting dumped my manager Sensational Sherri, having a tearful reunion in the middle of the ring with Miss Elizabeth, turning face and paying off over five years of storyline history between the two.
Rationale: Savage has to be on the shortlist of WWE’s all-time great in-ring workers, particularly given his ahead-of-his-time penchant for aerial assaults. Moreover, he’s that rare in-ring genius who also developed an insane cult-of-personality, arriving as one of WWE’s all-time most iconic characters, which he achieved during the red-hot late eighties into early nineties. Savage was also more or less equally successful working as a face and heel.
There’s a fair argument to be made that Savage could place even higher on this countdown, and even be number one. My main contention against that placement is that he was never really the man for an extended stretch — second fiddle to Hogan during his first, longest title reign and more of a stop-gap champ between Hogan and Bret Hart for his brief world title reign in 1992.
3. Hulk Hogan
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Hogan is a six-time world champion in WWE, was the first man to win back-to-back Royal Rumbles, won a Tag Team Championship, and main evented seven out of the first eight WrestleManias (not to mention that he figured heavily in the finish of that one he didn’t headline, and kinda-sorta main evented the ninth WrestleMania, too, for running in to snag the world title in an impromptu bout).
Best moment: Hogan body slammed and pinned Andre the Giant in front of purported crowd of 93,000 in the main event of WrestleMania 3. He went on to pin his opponent, ending a purported fifteen-year undefeated streak for the Giant.
Rationale: With the possible exception of the man ranked directly ahead of him, there is no performer more synonymous with pro wrestling than Hogan. He presided over one of the hottest periods in wrestling history from the mid-1980s to early-1990s at the fore of the WWF, and more often than not as its world champion. His rivalries with the likes of Roddy Piper, Andre the Giant, Randy Savage, and The Ultimate Warrior are the stuff of absolute legend and glorious nostalgia for those of us who grew up in that era. After a few semi-retirements and a prolonged run atop WCW, The Hulkster came back, too, for a remarkable nostalgia run from 2002 to 2003, during which time he picked up one more world title run, and had memorable matches opposite The Rock and Vince McMahon.
A very fair argument could be made for Hogan as the best ever, given he was such an overwhelmingly powerful draw, and succeeded in that role for, cumulatively, about a decade. The limiting factor for The Hulkster, and the reason I felt compelled to place him at number three, was that for all his time atop the promotion, his truly great matches are few and far between. He was an excellent talker with a killer physique, and you can argue that he didn’t put on five-star matches because that wasn’t the style of his day (admittedly, it wasn’t), but whether it was based on conscious choice, booking, or actual ability, he never quite proved himself in the ring at the level of anyone else in the top ten, so I didn’t feel I could justify placing him higher than number three on the countdown.
2. Steve Austin
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Austin is a six-time world champion, the only three-time winner of the Royal Rumble, a King of the Ring tournament winner, and held the Intercontinental and Tag Team Championships as well.
Best moment: It’s particularly difficult to parse a specific greatest Austin moment given the guy was positively on fire for a two-year-plus period that spanned 1998 and 1999, but I’ll go ahead and give it to the infamous Beer Bash, a particularly irreverent moment in which he drove to the ring in a beer truck to soak Vince McMahon, The Rock, and company to the crowd’s approval.
Rationale: It’s not entirely fair to say that any single performer saved or carried a promotion at any time, because there are always dance partners and supporting players. But Austin’s rise to prominence under the Stone Cold moniker was arguably hotter than any surge any wrestler has ever had at any other time, and was inarguably the most important component of the WWF’s wildly successful Attitude Era that not only kept the promotion afloat when WCW first posed a meaningful challenge in 1996, but ultimately led to unparalleled mainstream attention for the WWF and wrestling at large, and made Austin the business’s biggest star. Add onto that Austin being an excellent in-ring worker and even better talker during his WWF run, and there’s a strong case to be made he’s the best ever.
The limiting factors? For as good as Austin was in the ring, I’d argue he never quite matched the man ranked one place ahead of him (and there’s a reasonable argument Austin was actually, objectively, a stronger worker as a mid-carder in WCW, despite not getting as much opportunity to show it). Besides that, he was very good in 1996, great in 1997, beyond compare from 1998 to 1999, great in 2001, and retired in 2002. All that talk of it being better to burn brightly than fade away? It might be fair, and might be a part of why we don’t have memories of Stone Cold in decline to diminish our estimation of him as an all-time great. Just the same, a sub-seven year run did hold him back in my ranking.
1. Shawn Michaels
Top kayfabe accomplishments: Michaels is a four-time world champion, back-to-back winner of the Royal Rumble, first “Grand Slam” champion (winner of the World, Intercontinental, Tag Team, and European Championships), with five WrestleMania main events to his name.
Best moment: In the main event of WrestleMania 12, Michaels super kicked arch-rival Bret Hart to win his first world championship, during the overtime period to their otherwise score-less sixty-minute Iron Man Match.
Rationale: Shawn Michaels exists within a tradition of guys who truly worked all the way up the card to arrive at greatness. From humble beginnings in a lower-card tag team, The Rockers, to cultivating an arrogant heel mid-card act, to WrestleMania main events, to legendary status, Michaels was an undersized guy who built on sheer athleticism and good looks to develop into one of the tip-top in-ring workers of all time and all-time great talker. In 1996, he very arguably had a better in-ring year than any performer in WWE before or since, and largely carried the company as world champion during a down period for its business, and as competitor WCW surged.
Little less impressive, after Michaels seemingly retired due to a back injury nine years into his WWF run, he returned four years later for an eight-year coda during which time he was only marginally less athletic and arguably a whole lot smarter. During the latter era, he shored up his spot as the greatest of all time, highlighted by a string of borderline five-star WrestleMania matches opposite Chris Jericho, Chris Benoit, Triple H, Kurt Angle, John Cena, Ric Flair, and The Undertaker (not to mention a fun slobber knocker opposite Vince McMahon), that earned him the moniker “Mr. WrestleMania.”
Thanks for reading! For plenty more on wrestling and more, I welcome you to follow me on Twitter @miketchin and visit me online at miketchin.com.