Professional wrestling requires technical ability, acting talent and athleticism—the latter of which these 15 guys have more of than their locker-room counterparts.
There is a difference between in-ring skills and athleticism, though.
A performer can possess the best technical skills in the world, but doesn't necessarily have to be the best athlete per se. Likewise, one can be a supremely gifted athlete, but lack the technical ability to wrestle in skill-filled, awe-inspiring, back-and-forth matches on the level of CM Punk vs. Daniel Bryan.
Wrestling is a skill. Being athletic is entirely different.
Per EndzoneAthletics.com, "athleticism" is defined as the following:
The ability to use a variety of motor abilities (strength, power, speed, agility, coordination, stability, balance, etc.) to effectively and efficiently perform a wide variety of sporting actions.
It's the balance of many attributes at once that make up an athlete. Some—like Justin Gabriel—have speed, but what can he do with it outside of the ring? Others—like the Big Show—have monstrous strength due to their size, but what can they really do with it besides throw it around?
Look at the WWE roster. Who would you imagine has the best chance to thrive in a variety of other professional sports or even be an Olympian? Those are the men and women who should be considered the best overall athletes.
All in all, every member of the WWE is athletic.
Naturally, this should spark plenty of debate. Furthermore, it can be difficult to differentiate between who has athletic backgrounds and who is still athletic. I'll be the first to admit, history played a large role in distinguishing the athletes amongst each other.
So without further ado, here are the 15 most athletically talented superstars in the WWE.
There are a couple of men and women who have athleticism worth mentioning but still fail to make the list.
Justin Gabriel and Tyson Kidd
Both men are similar. They trained for professional wrestling early. They're quick and have dazzling in-ring style. But remember, as the intro laid out, they possess the skill of wrestling. The quickness and high-flying isn't quite on the level of a Rey Mysterio. They just miss.
He wrestled in high school and went through the Marine Academy. Still, he falls short because of the talent the rest on the list have.
I'm preemptively listing Layla based on her background as a professional dancer and cheerleader, for those of you who will point it out if I don't list her. Cheerleading takes a back seat compared to her peers' athletic talents, though.
Though it's certainly impressive, I won't even count Natalya Neidhart's achievement of being the first woman to train in the Hart Family Dungeon. That would simply help her develop the "skill" of wrestling.
And although you could say she had to be talented to be the first female, you could also say she received the opportunity based on namesake.
But in addition to professional wrestling, Natalya has competed in amateur wrestling and mixed martial arts.
So can she do other things besides fake wrestling? Absolutely.
Based on her training, background and the strength she displays in the ring, she'd probably hold her own in the MMA realm. She's certainly shown she's coordinated.
It wouldn't be surprising to see her doing events like the hammer throw or in the Independent Women's Football League.
I have serious doubts that either of these guys can play other sports. I'm not even so sure they're fast or can jump that far and high, as they use the ropes a lot to help their style.
But while they may not be fast over a long distance, they're quick and their pace is extremely speedy.
All the bouncing around and flipping each man does, must require a certain degree of coordination, balance, flexibility and, certainly, stamina.
Perhaps they'd make great gymnasts. Essentially, that's what they are now.
I found nothing in my research that identified Antonio Cesaro as an actual former rugby player.
But in just looking at Cesaro, it's a pretty genius shtick. The guy is ripped, he's strong—stronger than strong, he's powerful—and he has some serious speed and stamina.
It would be fairly easy to imagine this guy in nearly any sport (for some reason, even Badminton).
Want to be as big as Ryback? You should have started weightlifting at 12 years old like he did.
At Hell in a Cell, he showed he was surprisingly quick too.
Ryan Reeves, the man known as "Ryback" in the ring, was a two-sport high school athlete. He played football and baseball. He continued playing baseball in his first years in college as well.
Could he be an Olympic weightlifter? Probably. A designated hitter in Major League Baseball? I could see it. A linebacker in the NFL? That would be awesome.
For those of you screaming at your computer that Daniel Bryan and CM Punk are the same person, calm down. There's a big difference between the two.
Punk began wrestling early, but started as a backyard wrestler. He always knew he wanted to be on the big stage.
But while Punk trained in wrestling technique from the get-go, Bryan incorporated the discipline of jiu-jitsu into his practice. Furthermore, he continues to develop his talents by training with Randy Couture.
Quick, strong and disciplined in the art of jiu-jitsu and mixed martial arts—Daniel Bryan is the real deal.
Beyond the goofiest exterior in the WWE lies a talented athlete. His name is Santino Marella.
A bumbling idiot in the ring, Marella has extensive training in a couple of areas. At nine years old, Marella took up judo. He also won numerous amateur wrestling competitions in high school. Then he moved to Japan to train in mixed martial arts.
It was only after the judo, amateur wrestling and mixed martial arts that Marella entered professional wrestling.
So while Marella seems suited for Heath Slater in an entertainment format, in real life he's likely able to go toe-to-toe with nearly anyone in the back.
John Cena has the physique most men only dream of. He was a bodybuilder though, so it's no wonder his body looks the way it does.
But just like in-ring wrestling, bodybuilding is a skill.
For Cena, though, it's not just looks. Cena has displayed time and time again how strong he truly is. YouTube "John Cena, Attitude Adjustment, Big Show" for further evidence.
But does it translate to anything else?
Before becoming the face of the WWE, Cena played football for Division-III Springfield College where he was—somewhat surprisingly—a center. During his playing career, he became an All-American player.
You see him at a Tampa Bay Rays game in a jersey and he looks like a natural.
Hate him all you want because he lacks the skill of wrestling, but the guy is an athlete.
If professional wrestling is more a skill than an indication of athleticism, than perhaps we shouldn't include Cody Rhodes' amateur wrestling career either.
I mean, he's only a decorated high school wrestler and winner of the 2003 Georgia state tournament. One measly tournament where he beat out the competition from the entire state—no big deal, right?
But if we mention that, it's only fair to spotlight his acceptance into Penn State's wrestling program. Of course, pro wrestling snagged him first, so he never did compete.
State champion and could have been collegiate wrestler, check. Not everyone can say that.
If CM Punk and Daniel Bryan have the best technical abilities in WWE, Dolph Ziggler has the best ability to sell.
And it does take athleticism to do so.
Ziggler has similar jumping abilities to Kofi Kingston, he's got stamina, speed and coordination (he does a handstand headlock).
It might just be appearances, but Ziggler really does look like he could succeed on the baseball diamond, the basketball court or the pitch.
This next tidbit is worth noting too.
This is a discussion about athleticism. How fitting is it that Ziggler should have an ex-girlfriend who once said, "the sex was too athletic?" You can go ahead and read for yourself the rest of the flattering (I think?) comments.
That's money in the bank.
So he has the looks and the, uhm, other attributes. What else does he have?
Before turning pro, Ziggler set records at St. Edward High School, which he still owns, for most pins in school history. He continued wrestling in college and became Kent State University's most winningest wrestler, according to Slam! Sports.
It's a shame Alberto Del Rio loses the respect of fans over a gimmick, because talent-wise, he's a supremely gifted athlete.
In addition to owning great technical wrestling skills, Del Rio was an Olympic wrestler.
Del Rio wrestled in the Greco-Roman discipline and landed a spot on the Mexican national team. During his time on the squad, he wrestled in and won several international competitions.
He was on track to compete in the 2000 Summer Olympics, but no team was sent.
Under the first slide titled "Honorable Mentions," I said guys like Rey Mysterio and Justin Gabriel don't make the list because while they're high-flying and flashy, they really don't display much else. It'd be hard to imagine them in any other athletic competition outside of wrestling.
So now you're probably wondering how and why Kofi Kingston qualifies.
Mysterio and Gabriel utilize the ropes, corners and opponents' bodies to do most of their damage. Kingston does most of his high-flying by way of his own two feet.
He easily jumps the highest and farthest of anyone in the WWE. If there were long jump or high jump competitions between everyone in the locker room, the smart money would be on Kingston.
Remember, it's a variety of motor skills abilities such as strength, speed, agility, coordination, stability and balance.
Yeah, he's got that.
The WWE Universe sees Kingston's speed and agility once a week. But if you still don't believe he has the strength, coordination, stability and balance portion, let me remind you with this clip from Royal Rumble 2012.
Arguably one of WWE's most athletic wrestlers is one who is rarely even used.
Ted DiBiase Jr. is a former high school football quarterback. He switched to wide receiver once he began playing for Mississippi College.
So he can play football, anything else?
In his first year at Mississippi, he double-timed his athletic efforts by joining the school's soccer team. DiBiase won awards in both sports.
Soccer takes speed, stamina, leg strength and plenty of coordination. Football is much of the same, but the skills are utilized in different fashions. Then there's wrestling.
DiBiase can do all three, and he does all of them so well.
That's not even to mention the guy looks just like a MLB shortstop built for a billboard.
At this point, Jack Swagger's wrestling career is pretty well documented.
What you have heard, is that Swagger wrestled for University of Oklahoma. More impressively, though, is the fact that Swagger was recruited by the university.
What you may not have known is, Swagger was actually originally recruited by Oklahoma to play football. The All-American (nickname, not designation) played defensive tackle behind future NFL star Tommie Harris of the Chicago Bears.
Recruited to play football, asked to wrestle—all by a phenomenal school for both.
What an athlete.
Titus O'Neill was once named an All-American high school football player by USA Today.
He was such a great football talent, Steve Spurrier—then with the Florida Gators—recruited him to play defensive end at the collegiate level. The team won the national championship in 1996 during O'Neill's redshirt freshman year.
Though he never made it to the NFL, O'Neill spent five seasons in the Arena Football League. As you may or may not know, defensive ends possess size, strength, speed and the technique or coordination to get past blockers and run down quarterbacks and running backs.
That should sum up O'Neill's athleticism nicely.
Okay, okay, so I said Big Show doesn't make the list because he has strength due to his size. I also said he doesn't have much else. Seriously, could you really see him playing football? He'd get burned.
So how is it fair that Mark Henry makes the list?
Because Henry has a legitimate Olympic career on his resume to prove his athleticism. Seriously, just check out his Wikipedia page for all of his accomplishments in professional weightlifting competitions.
His achievements include first place in the 2002 Arnold Strongman Classic, the 1995 WDFPF World Powerlifting Championship and the 1996 NACAC Championships among nearly a dozen other events.
Additionally, he owns a Pan American Games gold medal, is a U.S. National champion and owns another half dozen all-time records.
He realistically might be the world's strongest man.