The World's Greatest in-Ring Performers of the Last 20 Years
In recent years, the WWE has tried to distance itself from the term "wrestling" on television, referring to the product as "sports-entertainment" and to their performers as '"superstars.' The company has also outlawed a number of maneuvers in order to make things safer for the talent, and has a regimented style of sports-entertainment that most of the roster follow, save for a few exceptions.
The in-ring technician is thought of by many as a dying breed in professional wrestling, especially when the industry's biggest stars are usually thought of as personalities as opposed to greatly talented technical wrestlers.
Thinking about this made me nostalgic for the days when great ring generals were 10-a-penny, and that served as the inspiration for this article.
This article will look at those, who in my opinion, are some of the greatest in-ring performers the industry has seen in the last 20 years.
Note: The rankings are based on in-ring skill, match quality and career success. Factors such as gimmick, mic skills etc. do not come into consideration.
10. Honourable Mentions
Dean Malenko was known as "the Man of 1,000 Holds" and was one of the most technically proficient wrestlers of all time. Despite enjoying a 22-year career and having runs with ECW, WCW and the WWF, Malenko never managed to break into the main event and failed to win a world championship before his retirement in 2001.
Jun Akiyama very nearly made the list, as his hard-hitting style and innovative offence made him one of the biggest stars in Japan. Akiyama captured world title gold in both AJPW and NOAH, and was an accomplished tag team wrestler, lifting tag team titles six times across both promotions.
The Dynamite Kid inspired the likes of Chris Benoit and Chris Jericho, but injuries and substance abuse problems curtailed his own career. An excellent run with NJPW between 1980 and 1984 established him as one of the premier junior heavyweights in the world, before tag team success in the WWF made him a household name. Unfortunately, his personal demons got the better of him and he was a shell of his former self by the time of his 1996 retirement.
Daniel Bryan is arguably the most popular performer in the business today, but it is his in-ring skills that earned him his opportunity at the big time. As Bryan Danielson, he contested some of the century's greatest matches in Ring of Honor between 2002 and 2009, before establishing himself as one of the top talents in the WWE, who can drag a decent match out of anyone. And he is still only 31 years old.
9. Chris Jericho
Beginning his training at age 19 and making his debut all the way back on October 2, 1990, Chris Jericho spent his formative years in the business honing his craft by traveling around the world.
Before his ECW debut in 1996, he had already competed across America, as well as tours of Canada, Germany, Japan and Mexico, where he began an 11-month reign as NWA Middleweight Champion in 1993 at the age of just 23. Jericho also captured the ECW Television title and also held championships in Canada, Mexico and Japan during these years.
His tenure with Paul Heyman's company led to WCW, where Jericho would gain national exposure and hold the Cruiserweight title four times, and enjoy a run as Television champion.
Making his first appearance for the WWF in August 1999, Jericho has remained with the company ever since and has amassed an incredible list of accomplishments; the first Undisputed Champion in company history, three World Heavyweight Championships, two WCW World titles, a record nine Intercontinental titles, single reigns with the Hardcore and European belts and seven tag title wins.
In recent years, Jericho started taking extended sabbaticals from the company as he transitioned to one of the WWE's veterans. Using his in-ring talents to help elevate other performers, Jericho isn't shy of putting over and up-and-coming star to enhance their reputation.
If you had asked me back in the mid-1990s if the cocky young "Lion Tamer" would become one of the most accomplished in-ring performers in the business, I probably would have laughed.
After competing all over the world to develop his own style, Chris Jericho has constantly been one of the industry's top talents during his career, and his selflessness in putting new stars over will ensure his place as one of the all-time greats.
8. Bret Hart
During his 22-year career, Bret Hart was always held in high regard by his peers, the quality of his in-ring work ensured that he earned his reputation as "the Excellence of Execution."
An accomplished amateur wrestler, Hart made his in-ring debut in 1978 for his father Stu's Stampede Wrestlin and enjoyed a successful six years with the company before signing with the WWF in 1984. During this time, he also frequently competed for New Japan Pro Wrestling, and even wrestled the original Tiger Mask.
Hart remained with the WWF up until the infamous "Montreal Screwjob" at Survivor Series. During his time with the Stamford outfit he became one of the most complete in-ring performers in the business, and spearheaded the rise of smaller wrestlers to the top of Vince McMahon's company.
All told, "the Hitman" was a five-time WWF Champion, two-time World Tag Team champion, lifted the Intercontinental title twice, won the King of the Ring tournament in both 1991 and 1993 and won the 1994 Royal Rumble. It was during these years that Hart established himself as one of the world's greatest wrestlers, putting on innumerable stellar matches with a vast amount of opponents of all shapes and sizes.
A disappointing run with WCW followed, though Hart would still manage to lift the WCW Championship on two occasions, as well as adding four United States titles and a tag team title win before his unfortunate retirement in 2000.
One of the industry's most popular stars during the 1990s, as well as being one of the most talented technical wrestlers of his generation, Bret Hart is a legend in this business, and although I disagree with his title as "the Best There Is, the Best There Was and the Best There Ever Will Be," he's pretty damn close.
7. Jushin Liger
Regarded as the man who revolutionised junior heavyweight wrestling in the 1990s, Jushin Liger still occasionally competes in the ring, an incredible 28 years after his debut.
The puroresu legend mostly appeared for New Japan Pro Wrestling, although he has also wrestled for WCW, TNA, Ring of Honor, Stampede Wrestling and more throughout his decorated career.
Liger popularised the shooting star press in the late 1980s and became one of the most innovative and influential junior heavyweight wrestlers in the world, with performers as far afield as Mexico and the United States emulating his style.
Winning 17 different championships in 10 promotions across the globe, Liger is most famous for his record 11 IWGP Junior Heavyweight title wins, and he also lifted the WCW Light Heavyweight Championship in the 1990s.
He was also the winner of the Best of the Super Junior tournament in 1992, 1994 and 2001. The Wrestling Observer also awarded Liger the title of Best Technical Wrestler four times, Most Outstanding Wrestler on three occasions and he is a five-time Best Flying Wrestler award-winner.
Jushin Liger is rightly regarded as a legend in the business due to the innovative offence he frequently utilised in his matches, his incredible list of championships and accomplishments, and most importantly, the high quality of his matches over the course of a long and distinguished career.
6. Chris Benoit
Despite the horrible circumstances surrounding his death in 2007 (which I will not go into here), nobody can deny that Chris Benoit was easily one of the most talented in-ring performers of his generation.
Making his debut in 1985 after training at the legendary Hart Dungeon, Benoit remained with Stampede Wrestling for four years before competing in Japan for NJPW, where he had great success.
Under the moniker of the "Pegasus Kid," he won the Super J Cup in 1994 and also managed to win the Best of the Super Junior tournament both the year before and after.
Benoit had a short stint with ECW before signing a contract with WCW, where he remained until the year 2000. Consistently putting on excellent matches and often carrying lesser-skilled opponents, "the Rabid Wolverine" was a former WCW Champion, two-time United States champion, three-time Television champion and also lifted tag team gold on two occasions.
A move to the WWF led to the most successful period in Benoit's career. In addition to winning the 2004 Royal Rumble, he lifted the World Heavyweight Championship, captured four Intercontinental titles, three United States championships and was a four-time tag team champion. Benoit was also named Best Technical Wrestler by the Wrestling Observer on five occasions.
Known for his trademark intensity inside the squared circle, Benoit maintained an upper-card position throughout most of his career thanks to his incredible talents negating his lack of personality and microphone skills. Although his name is now hushed throughout the industry, Chris Benoit the wrestler is one of the all-time greats.
5. Keiji Muto
Arguably the most famous Japanese wrestler in history, Keiji Muto (and his alter-ego the Great Muta) have achieved success in both his home country and the United States since his debut in October 1984. The former president of NJPW, he is one of the most revered performers in the history of puroresu and also one of the most influential.
A former four-time IWGP Heavyweight champion, three-time AJPW Triple Crown champion, Muto also lifted the NWA World Heavyweight title and was named by respected Japanese sports newspaper Tokyo Sports Grand Prix as Wrestler of the Year four times between 1995 and 2008.
As well as being an established singles star, Muto is also a decorated tag team wrestler, winning five tag team titles in AJPW and six with NJPW. Muto competed many times for WCW and also held gold in Puerto Rico.
A rare type of Japanese wrestler who spent much of his formative years competing in the United States, Muto is the rare combination of American-style personality with puroreso-style ring skills.
Serious knee injuries curtailed his activity in recent years, but Muto has still been able to pull out all the stops when necessary, including a blinding encounter with Jun Akiyama in March of this year. Undoubtedly one of the greatest talents his country has ever produced, Keiji Muto is also deserving of a place among the entire industry's all-time top performers.
4. Kurt Angle
One of the most decorated amateur competitors of his generation, Kurt Angle also tasted Olympic gold before setting his sights on professional wrestling, and went on to prove himself as one of the best of all time.
Becoming WWF Champion less than a year after his debut in late 1999, by the time Angle left the company in 2006 he had almost done it all; four WWE titles, a World Heavyweight Championship, a single WCW Championship and single reigns as Intercontinental, European, Hardcore and United States champion, in addition to winning the 2000 King of the Ring tournament and lifting tag team gold with Chris Benoit.
Having countless top-quality matches with nearly every major name from the Attitude Era and beyond, Angle cemented his reputation as the "Wrestling Machine" with the consistently high quality of his matches and the intensity with which he competed, even after serious neck issues.
Since joining TNA in 2006, Angle has once again proven himself as one of the best, winning the World Heavyweight Championship five times, being crowned King of the Mountain in 2006 and 2007, and also holding the tag team titles twice and the X Division belt once. During his tenure with TNA, Angle even went to Japan to compete and ultimately ended up as IWGP Heavyweight champion.
The Wrestling Observer has also awarded the "Olympic Hero" the accolades of Wrestler of the Year, Best Technical Wrestler, Most Outstanding Wrestler each on three occasions and named him Wrestler of the Decade at the end of the 2000s.
Despite the injury problems that still cause him distress to this day, Kurt Angle has always been regarded as one of the best technical wrestlers in the business, and it is to his credit that he has maintained an incredibly high standard throughout his 13-year career, and is undoubtedly one of the best we will ever see.
3. Mitsuharu Misawa
The founder of Pro Wrestling NOAH, Mitsuharu Misawa is held in high regard as one of the most talented in-ring performers in history, and he remained incredibly popular from his debut in 1981 right through to his untimely death in a tag team contest on June 13, 2009.
Spending the first 19 years of his career with AJPW, Misawa conquered almost every major championship in the promotion. The first ever five-time Triple Crown champion, Misawa also captured tag team gold on eight separate occasions and triumphed in the World's Strongest Tag Team League four years in a row between 1992 and 1995.
During his stint with the company, Misawa was involved in countless top-notch main event encounters with the likes of Akira Taue, Kenta Kobashi and Toshiaki Kawada. Misawa was even promoted to president of the company, but he left in 2000.
Taking most of the AJPW roster with him to form NOAH, Misawa was president, booker and top star all rolled into one. In addition to lifting the promotion's tag team titles twice, Misawa was also a three-time World champion and defended the belt against opponents as varied as Takeshi Morishima, Bison Smith and Samoa Joe before his unfortunate death when challenging for the tag titles in Hiroshima.
In addition to his in-ring accomplishments, the Wrestling Observer awarded Misawa a staggering 24 5-Star Match awards between 1985 and 2003, five Match of the Year awards and he was named Wrestler of the Year in 1995, 1997 and 1999.
One of Japanese wrestling's most popular stars for three decades, Mitsuharu Misawa had more great matches in his career than almost any other performer, and is fully deserving of his almost-deified status amongst fans of puroresu.
As talented backstage as he was in the ring, "the Standard Bearer of Future Generations" is unquestionably one of the all-time greats.
2. Kenta Kobashi
Despite a succession of serious injuries limiting his appearances since the start of the decade, Kenta Kobashi is still regarded as one of the greatest ever to step inside the ring.
The recipient of no less than 23 5-Star Match awards from the Wrestling Observer, Kobashi was also named Wrestler of the Year on four occasions between 1996 and 2003 and competed in six Match of the Year winners.
Making his debut as a raw 20-year-old in 1988, Kobashi remained with AJPW until 2000 when, along with most of the roster, he departed to Mitsuharu Misawa's newly formed Pro Wrestling NOAH.
During his time with All Japan, Kobashi captured the IWGP Triple Crown three times and lifted tag team gold on no less than 10 occasions. Throughout the 1990s, "Orange Crush" was widely thought of to be one of the industry's most talented performers, thanks to a unique blend of power, agility, stamina and innovation.
Following his switch to NOAH, Kobashi's knee issues caused him to miss over a year of action from December 2000. Staying healthy, Kobashi defeated Misawa to lift the World Heavyweight Championship in March 2002, which was the catalyst for a number of hard-fought title defences over an incredible 735-day reign.
This would be Kobashi's only run with the main title as continuing series of injuries curtailed his in-ring activities for the rest of the decade. Despite this, he wrestled three of the greatest puroreso matches of all time against Misawa, Jun Akiyama and Kensuke Sasaki between 2003 and 2005. He also made his United States debut during a short run in 2005, one which yielded a classic match with Samoa Joe with Ring of Honor.
Kobashi unfortunately ended the decade on the injury list, as serious nerve damage sidelined him for over 18 months. He would make his return in July 2011, and makes sporadic appearances for the company whenever he deems himself healthy enough.
Despite the number of injuries he has sustained since the turn of the century, any time "the Maximum Innovator" steps in the ring the fans are guaranteed something special.
Thought of by many Japanese wrestling fans as the best all-round talent of all time, an injury-free Kenta Kobashi could have been miles ahead of the competition.
1. Shawn Michaels
Quite possibly the most complete performer in the history of the business, "the Heartbreak Kid" had it all; looks, charisma, personality, microphone skills, and most importantly of all, phenomenal in-ring talent. Since his retirement in March 2010, his presence has been sorely missed on WWE television.
During his first run with the company between 1988 and 1998, "he Showstopper" was one of the company's top stars; a three-time WWF Champion, three-time Intercontinental champion, three-time World Tag Team champion, European champion and Royal Rumble winner in 1995 and 1996. During this time, Michaels established himself as one of the world's premier in-ring talents
After a four-year hiatus following a serious back injury, Michaels returned in 2002 and lifted the World Heavyweight Championship and enjoyed another two tag team title wins.
During his second run with the company, Michaels used his experience and skills to selflessly put over numerous other wrestlers, often making them look like superstars in the process. "Mr. Wrestlemania" also contested in eight consecutive excellent matches at WWE's premier event between 2003 and 2010.
Michaels is often labelled as the greatest by his own peers, and it is telling that he was involved in the first ladder match in the WWF, the first Iron Man match, the inaugural Hell in a Cell clash and the debut of the Elimination Chamber, showing the confidence Vince McMahon has in his abilities to both adapt and innovate.
Michaels was also awarded eleven Match of the Year awards from Pro Wrestling Illustrated, including a remarkable seven in a row from 2004 to 2010. The Wrestling Observer also awarded HBK their Match of the Year honour four times between 1994 and 2008.
Shawn Michaels deserves to be recognised as the greatest in-ring performer of all time due to the success of his first run with the WWF, in which he ascended to the position of top star, mainly due to his incredible work rate. His second stint with the company saw him become a veteran who wasn't afraid to put his opponents over, and make them look like a million dollars in the process.
The greatest of all time? I certainly think so.
So there it is, the 10 names who, in my opinion, are the greatest in-ring performers of the last 20 years.
Do you agree with the rankings?
Have I missed out one of your favourites?
Remember that this is only my opinion, so I'm looking forward to seeing who you would include in your top ten. Sound off in the comments below!
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