The tradition of wrestling in a mask is something that is sacred in Mexico, but it has permeated the culture of American professional wrestling over the years as well. While there haven't been nearly as many iconic masked wrestlers in the United States, the list is still fairly impressive.
Since the WWE is the preeminent promotion in the U.S. and has been for decades, this slideshow will focus on the 10 greatest masked wrestlers to ever step foot in a WWE ring. There is plenty of criteria that went into narrowing the list down to just 10, but the main focus is what the wrestlers accomplished while in the WWE rather than at other stops along the way.
Also, only wrestlers who competed for the majority of their career under a mask or enjoyed a significant run where a mask was central to their character will be considered. That means that Hulk Hogan as Mr. America, CM Punk after getting his head shaved as the leader of the Straight Edge Society, Edge and Christian as Los Conquistadores and similar situations won't be on this list.
With that said, here are the 10 greatest masked marvels in WWE history, as well as a few honorable mentions who could quite crack the top 10.
In the interest of making this slideshow into a round number, there were a few great masked wrestlers who had to be omitted.
Although Chainsaw Charlie's mask was actually women's hosiery, he was technically a masked wrestler. Chainsaw Charlie is best known for his incredible work as the legendary Terry Funk, but he teamed with Cactus Jack for a time in 1998 and they won the WWE Tag Team Championships.
While Cody Rhodes only wore a mask for about a year of his career, it was a huge part of his character. He first started wearing the protective mask when Rey Mysterio "broke" a bone in his face. It led Rhodes to portray a grotesque character who was ashamed by his appearance. Had the gimmick lasted longer, he likely would have cracked the top 10.
The man who portrayed the Blue Blazer was one of the most talented men in the history of the business in the form of Owen Hart. That alone nearly qualified him from the list, but Owen never did much as the Blue Blazer, and it was under that gimmick that he tragically fell to his death at Over The Edge in 1999.
Admittedly, Ultimo Dragon didn't accomplish a ton while in the WWE, but I would be remiss if I didn't mention him. Ultimo Dragon is considered to be one of the greatest masked wrestlers professional wrestling has ever seen, and that is good enough for me to list him at No. 10.
The bulk of Ultimo Dragon's success came in WCW, where he was Cruiserweight and Television Champion, as well as in various promotions in both Mexico and his native Japan. Ultimo Dragon made the jump to WWE in 2003, however, because it was his dream to both wrestle at Madison Square Garden and compete at WrestleMania.
Ultimo Dragon accomplished both of those goals, so even though he wasn't used to the best of his abilities in WWE, his run could be considered a successful one. Had he been utilized a bit more effectively, though, Ultimo Dragon likely would have been much higher on this list due to his mystifying in-ring prowess and vast experience.
Sin Cara came to the WWE last year amid much fanfare, and while he hasn't quite lived up to his advanced billing yet, he is already one of the most popular luchadores to ever step foot into a WWE ring. The fact that he is already No. 9 on this list should tell you that Sin Cara has a bright future in the company.
The high flyer initially made a name for himself in Mexico as Mistico, and many fans were excited to see his unique style of wrestling come stateside. Sin Cara captivated the WWE fanbase immediately, and even though he had some trouble adapting the WWE way of doing things, he has since gotten acclimated to the United States.
Sin Cara has had his fair share of issues with injuries and a wellness policy violation, but he appears to be on the right track to success. He is currently teaming with a fellow masked superstar in Rey Mysterio, and the two of them have taken the WWE's tag-team division by storm. Sin Cara has toned down his in-ring mistakes and now has someone who can do some talking for him, and that should go a long way in his development.
One of the most mysterious tag teams in professional wrestling history comes in an No. 8 in the countdown. The Executioners made their WWE debut in 1976 and were immediately a dominant force within the tag division. Before long, the two behemoths defeated Louis Cerdan and Tony Parisi to capture the Tag Team Championships.
Little did many fans know that the masked men were actually Big John Studd and Killer Kowalski. Studd went on to stardom as a singles competitor without a mask after The Executioners disbanded, while Kowalski was one of the top heels in the business for years prior to the team coming into existence. It was truly the perfect match, but it was short lived, as it lasted less than a year.
The introduction of a third Executioner, which was played by Nikolai Volkoff, forced The Executioners to drop the titles and drop the gimmick altogether. Although neither Studd nor Kowalski are best known for their Executioner gimmicks, they had a lot of success as a team and belong on the list based on their name recognition alone.
The Patriot's run in the WWE was a short one, but he left an indelible mark on the company that ensures fans will remember him for years to come. The Patriot first made a name for himself in companies like the Global Wrestling Federation, All Japan Pro Wrestling and WCW before joining the WWE in 1997.
He was immediately thrust into the spotlight, as he began feuding with Bret "Hitman" Hart. Hart had recently formed The Hart Foundation along with Owen Hart, Jim Neidhart, British Bulldog and Brian Pillman. The stable was anti-American in nature and received major heat in the United States while remaining beloved in Canada. The Patriot, not surprisingly, stood up for the American way, and he wanted to punish Hart.
The Patriot actually had a WWE Championship match against Hart at Ground Zero: In Your House, and while he came up short, he reached a lofty level in a short period of time. Injuries ultimately derailed The Patriot's WWE run, as he was released in early 1998, but he had a gimmick that was over and might have been something special had he remained healthy.
Although his gimmick may have been comedic in nature, The Hurricane was one of the more gifted performers to step foot in a WWE ring. Hurricane rose to prominence as a member of Three Count in WCW, and he wrestled as Gregory Helms in WWE initially, but he eventually became a crime-fighting superhero known as The Hurricane.
While The Hurricane was more about entertaining antics than in-ring ability, Helms managed to excel in all facets. he was a two-time Tag Team Champion, a Hardcore Champion and a European Champion, and he was one of the most over guys on the roster despite the fact that he was a mid-carder and he was overshadowed by top stars like "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, The Rock, The Undertaker, Triple H and others.
The Hurricane did something extraordinary with a character that seemed pretty stupid on the surface. His comedy was somewhat corny, but it was still funny, and the fans ate it up. He joined the WWE at the tail end of a time when over-the-top gimmicks worked, and he made the most of that. Helms will always be pigeonholed as The Hurricane when people look back at his career; however, that isn't necessarily a bad thing.
Although opinions obviously vary, many fans consider Mil Mascaras to be the greatest luchador of all-time, and even though his impact was felt mostly in Mexico rather than as a part of the WWE, he most definitely belongs on the list. Mascaras won a number of high-profile titles in several different Mexican promotions; however, he did bring his exciting brand of wrestling to the United States at various point.
Mascaras debuted in the WWE in the late 1970s and became the first masked wrestler to compete at Madison Square Garden. Mascaras often challenged "Superstar" Billy Graham for the WWE Championship and quickly became a big hit stateside. Mascaras even wrestled for the WWE as late as 1997, as he entered the Royal Rumble that year at the age of 55.
Aside from that, Mascaras' legacy continues to grow in the WWE, as he is the uncle of two-time WWE Champion Alberto Del Rio, as well as a member of the WWE Hall of Fame. Mascaras could very well be No. 1 on this list if his work in other companies was being taken into consideration, but No. 5 isn't bad for a guy who only had a cup of coffee in the WWE.
I believe that Vader is perhaps the greatest waste of talent in the history of the WWE, but he definitely still had a major impact within the company. Thanks to his immense size, brute strength and surprising athleticism, Vader was a star everywhere he went. Prior to joining the WWE in 1996, he was a world champion in both New Japan Pro Wrestling and WCW, so he seemed destined to shine in WWE as well.
Vader made his presence felt immediately, as he was a dominant force in the 1996 Royal Rumble. Vader also hit his patented Vader Bomb on then-WWE president Gorilla Monsoon, which helped put him over as a monster heel. Vader appeared to be well on his way to a WWE Championship run, and rumors persist that it was almost certain to happen, but Shawn Michaels apparently used his backstage clout to give the title to Sycho Sid instead.
This led to Vader being used primarily as a jobber to the stars, and he faded into oblivion over the next couple years. Vader's weight became an issue, and he slowly lost some of his athleticism and stamina, and it eventually led to his release from WWE. Even so, Vader continued his dominance by winning the Triple Crown title in All Japan Pro Wrestling after being released from WWE, so it would appear as though Vince McMahon missed the boat.
Mick Foley has worked under several different gimmicks over the course of his career, including Cactus Jack and Dude Love, but there is no question that the most popular and successful among them was Mankind. Foley was essentially a professional wrestling nomad prior to joining the WWE in 1996, but it quickly became apparent that he had found a permanent home, and he became one of the Attitude Era's biggest stars.
Foley had the range necessary to change his character constantly, and he proved that as Mankind. He was initially a psychotic, boiler-room dwelling heel when he debuted in WWE, but Mankind slowly evolved into a quirky fan favorite. The mask was a much bigger part of his persona in 1996 than it was a few years later, but he kept it because it had become synonymous with the Mankind name.
Foley's crowning moment as Mankind came when he won the WWE Championship on an episode of Raw in December of 1998. It is well-known that WCW announcer Tony Schiavone gave away the result of Mankind's title match and sarcastically said "that'll put a lot of butts in the seats." This caused tons of fans to change the channel, and it ultimately led to WWE taking the lead in the Monday Night Wars.
Rey Mysterio has been a fan favorite in the United States since debuting in ECW back in 1995 and he became even more popular as one of the leaders of WCW's cruiserweight division. It was until he joined WWE in 2002 that he truly reached his potential, however, as he went from a regular mid-carder to a main-event-caliber star.
Mysterio has often been called the ultimate underdog, and he has made a great career out of that nickname. Most fans thought of Mysterio as a one-trick pony when he came to the WWE, but Vince McMahon put a stop to that. He saw the value in Mysterio as a main event guy due to how popular he was with the younger fans, and that led to him winning the Royal Rumble and becoming a two-time World Heavyweight Champion, as well as a one-time WWE Champion.
Mysterio is one of the smallest wrestlers in WWE history, but he is also now one of the most decorated as well with 12 different title reigns under his belt. Mysterio is now 37 years old, and his time in the business may be dwindling, but he's still one of the best in-ring workers in the business, and he always gives 100 percent. In terms of masked luchadores, Mysterio is the best that the WWE has ever seen.
Kane may not be a masked wrestler in the traditional sense, as it isn't part of his wrestling culture, but he has worn a mask for the vast majority of his career and is a WWE legend. Kane made his WWE debut at Badd Blood: In Your House in 1997 as The Undertaker's crazed brother. He broke into the cell, attacked Taker and allowed Shawn Michaels to pick up the victory.
Ever since, Kane has been wreaking havoc in the WWE. Like Mysterio, Kane has only one WWE Championship reign that last just a day, but that doesn't take away from what else he has accomplished. He's a former World Heavyweight Champion, ECW Champion, Hardcore Champion, Intercontinental Champion and Tag Team Champion, so he has truly done it all in the WWE.
Kane ditched the mask for several years, but he began wearing it again last year and is now reinvigorated. He's 45 years of age; however, his in-ring work is as good as ever, and he just competed in his 899th television match for the WWE on Monday, which is an all-time record. Perhaps Kane didn't receive quite as many major title reigns and accolades as some of his Attitude Era contemporaries, but he's one of the last guys standing from the time period and he has had an incredible career.