The question of who is the greatest WWE Superstar of all time is extremely difficult and likely to cause a few screaming bouts between fans. But it's nothing a 64-man bracket and fantasy tournament can't clear up.
Does John Cena make it through the field? Does Hulk Hogan assert his dominance as if it was the peak of Hulkmania once again, or does "Stone Cold" Steve Austin stomp his way to victory?
Like the NCAA basketball tournament, the competitors will battle in four regions, each containing 16 entrants.
A win advances a wrestler to the next round. A loss pushes one out of the running for greatest WWE Superstar ever. It's a title only one man can claim.
First up is assigning Superstars seeds, a process that sets up a glut of fantasy matches.
Wrestlers of today and yesterday earn their seeding based on the most tangible aspects of WWE success. The more abstract, debatable elements will be used post-seeding to determine the winners of each matchup.
Winning the WWE Championship several times or, in some cases, for an unreal amount of time a la Bruno Sammartino helps a Superstar get a higher number.
Annual awards from Pro Wrestling Illustrated and Wrestling Observer Newsletter, as well as entry into the WWE Hall of Fame, decide who gets positioned as a No. 1 seed and who has to settle for a lower spot.
This puts surefire future Hall of Famers like The Rock and The Undertaker at a disadvantage compared to their peers who have already worn their tuxes, made their speeches and entered the Hall. Once the matchups begin, though, their assumed inductions will be factored in.
Cena, who was named the Wrestler of the Year by the Wrestling Observer Newsletter in 2007 and 2010, in addition to winning three Match of the Year awards from Pro Wrestling Illustrated, will surely get a high seeding. Other championships and accomplishments like the Royal Rumble are considered as well.
"The British Bulldog" Davey Boy Smith, Rick Rude and Ernie Ladd have less of these accomplishments on their resumes and therefore will have to settle for lower seeds and rely on upsets once the tournament begins.
No. 1 Seeds
WWE recently asked who fans would put as their four top seeds in a fantasy tourney. There are certainly more than four men deserving of those spots, so there is certain to be some huge names destined not to make it.
Hulk Hogan earns one of the coveted No. 1 seeds thanks to dominating the Pro Wrestling Illustrated awards in the '80s. The magazine handed him the Match of the Year Award four times, including one for the first-ever WrestleMania main event.
Just as Hogan owned WWE in the '80s, the late '90s was Steve Austin's time.
He racked up championships and awards during his time as the company's lead man. Wrestling Observer Newsletter named him Wrestler of the Year in 1998, Most Charismatic in 1997 and 1998 and Best on Interviews for a three-year stretch between 1996 and 1998.
Shawn Michaels joins them on the strength of his overflowing mantle. Match of the Year awards just didn't go to anyone else when he went on an amazing run at the end of his career.
Both major wrestling publications gave him that honor from 2008 to 2010, while Pro Wrestling Illustrated named one of his bouts the year's best a total of 11 times.
The only non-Hall of Famer to earn a No. 1 seed is Kurt Angle. He makes up for that resume deficiency by cleaning up in the championship and award categories. He was the Wrestler of the Decade for the 2000s, according to Wrestling Observer Newsletter, and 2003's Pro Wrestling Illustrated Wrestler of the Year. That magazine also awarded him the year's best match in 2003 and 2005.
That leaves out a number of worthy candidates for top spots, including Cena, The Rock, Bret Hart and Undertaker.
They just barely missed out, not quite matching Austin, Hogan, Angle and Michaels in the gold- and award-collecting business. WWE.com selected Undertaker, Hogan, Cena and Austin as WWE's Mt. Rushmore. Will that be the tournament's Final Four?
- 1. Hulk Hogan
- 2. Bret Hart
- 3. Undertaker
- 4. Triple H
- 5. Roddy Piper
- 6. Andre the Giant
- 7. Daniel Bryan
- 8. Sgt. Slaughter
- 9. Batista
- 10. Ricky Steamboat
- 11. Rob Van Dam
- 12. Iron Sheik
- 13. Mr. Perfect
- 14. Ron Simmons
- 15. Davey Boy Smith
- 16. Ernie Ladd
Undertaker would have the most reason to be angry with his seeding, as there is an argument that he could be a No. 1 seed with his impressive resume. Hart and Hogan, though, are already in the Hall of Fame, and Angle cheated him out of a top spot with a few more magazine awards.
One of the bigger surprises here is how high Bryan is.
His red-hot 2013 netted him a number of awards, from PWI Wrestler of the Year to Best Technical Wrestler from Wrestling Observer Newsletter, an honor he's achieved every year since 2005.
Ernie Ladd's lack of titles brings him down despite his Hall of Fame status and the fact that many people, including the folks at UGO.com, consider him one of the best big men ever.
- 1. Kurt Angle
- 2. Bruno Sammartino
- 3. Ric Flair
- 4. CM Punk
- 5. Chris Benoit
- 6. Randy Orton
- 7. Ultimate Warrior
- 8. Jeff Hardy
- 9. Kane
- 10. Owen Hart
- 11. Big Show
- 12. Tito Santana
- 13. Diesel
- 14. John "Bradshaw" Layfield
- 15. Jake Roberts
- 16. Professor Tanaka
Professor Tanaka sneaks in as one of the last entrants, an underappreciated talent who often challenged Sammartino for the WWE Championship in the '60s. He will instead face Angle in this tournament, a dream matchup for wrestling history nerds.
In a bracket of all-time great pro wrestlers, Flair would surely be a No. 1 seed.
His time as NWA champ and the face of the WCW aren't counted here, though. The WWE portion of his career came in shorter bursts compared to his runs elsewhere.
Love from the magazine pushes "The Rocket" Owen Hart above former world champs. He was the PWI Rookie of the Year in 1987 and the Best Flying Wrestler, as named by Wrestling Observer Newsletter, in '87 and '88.
Survivor Series Region
- 1. Steve Austin
- 2. John Cena
- 3. Edge
- 4. Chris Jericho
- 5. Randy Savage
- 6. Brock Lesnar
- 7. Booker T
- 8. Buddy Rogers
- 9. Billy Graham
- 10. Don Muraco
- 11. Rey Mysterio
- 12. Chief Jay Strongbow
- 13. John Studd
- 14. Jim Duggan
- 15. Razor Ramon
- 16. Junkyard Dog
When the "Macho Man" is positioned as a No. 5 seed, you know you have a stacked region. Political issues and Savage himself reportedly declining invitations have kept him out of the Hall of Fame, allowing others to pass him up here.
Savage will face Strongbow, a name some fans may not recognize. He was the PWI Most Popular Wrestler of the Year in 1973.
Jericho is one of those, thanks to Wrestling Observer Newsletter for recognizing his stellar work in the late '00s. He was named Best on Interviews for that decade.
Royal Rumble Region
- 1. Shawn Michaels
- 2. The Rock
- 3. Bob Backlund
- 4. Eddie Guerrero
- 5. Mick Foley
- 6. Pedro Morales
- 7. Ted DiBiase
- 8. Yokozuna
- 9. Jimmy Snuka
- 10. Greg Valentine
- 11. Bobo Brazil
- 12. Killer Kowalski
- 13. Gorilla Monsoon
- 14. Sheamus
- 15. Sycho Sid
- 16. Rick Rude
The Rock's biggest strengths lean more toward the intangible. His influence and impact on the industry is greater than his collection of awards. That and not yet being in the Hall of Fame slides him down to a No. 2 seed.
This region also features Greg Valentine, who held the Intercontinental Championship for 285 days. "The Hammer" joined the WWE Hall of Fame in 2004.
Brazil, Kowalski and Monsoon have to settle for lower seeds partly because they competed in an era where one man held the world title for incredible stretches. From 1963 to 1971, a total of three men held the WWE Championship.
Had Kowalski and company competed more recently, they likely would have had a run or two with the top title.
Harley Race and Dusty Rhodes are all-time great wrestlers. That's why both men are in every wrestling Hall of Fame imaginable, including the Wrestling Observer Newsletter version and the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame and Museum.
The WWE portions of their careers, though, weren't as successful as they were elsewhere.
Rhodes, for example, was the NWA world champ, the Four Horsemen's chief adversary and a great interviewer who told us about hard times. In WWE, he was mostly a dancing midcard act in polka dots.
Vader had most of his success in WCW and Japan. Goldberg's WWE run was not nearly as memorable as him tearing through WCW.
For that reason, they are both left out of the tournament. Teams like The Road Warriors suffer the same fate because their triumphs came as a duo. There's no way to split them up and insert them into the tourney.
Tournament Matchup Criteria
Just like every March, the No. 1 seeds aren't guaranteed a spot in the Final Four.
This portion of the tournament factors in a wrestler's more non-concrete contributions to WWE history as well as titles, awards, etc. The amount of time and success a wrestler had as a headliner is also a factor.
The same goes for how memorable their character was, how much they affected the business and the stature of their legacy as a whole.
With that mind, the first battles begin in the WrestleMania region, where Hogan, Hart and The Undertaker are the favorites to emerge as the winners.
Round of 64
- No. 1 Hogan over No. 16 Ladd
- No. 8 Slaughter over No. 9 Batista
- No. 4 Triple H over No. 13 Mr. Perfect
- No. 5 Piper over No. 12 Iron Sheik
- No. 2 Hart over No. 15 Smith
- No. 10 Steamboat over No. 7 Bryan
- No. 3 Undertaker over No. 14 Simmons
- No. 6 Andre over No. 11 Van Dam
This region's first round mostly plays out as one would expect, with the top seeds taking the wins. The only upset seed-wise is Steamboat defeating Bryan.
In the end, Bryan could well be a Hall of Famer and talked about as we do in regard "The Hitman" and "The Heartbreak Kid" today. For now, though, Steamboat's memorable feuds with Savage and Roberts, as well as his all-time classic bout at WrestleMania III, get him the win here.
Bryan has yet to have his standout WrestleMania moment, something that is assured to change come April 6.
Iron Sheik is not going to like seeing Piper beat him, but "Hot Rod" moves on thanks to his contributions to WrestleMania and for creating Piper's Pit, a talk-show segment that has been copied several times over.
Hart faces Smith in a rematch of their SummerSlam masterpiece in 1992.
This time, it's no contest, with Hart being the top WWE wrestler during the early '90s and being one of the most hated and most popular stars in the company at different times.
Round of 32
- No. 1 Hogan over No. 8 Slaughter
- No. 5 Piper over No. 4 Triple H
- No. 2 Hart over No. 10 Steamboat
- No. 3 Undertaker over No. 6 Andre
Piper gets a slight upset for his aforementioned contributions. He helped alter WWE history, serving as the top villain in the first WrestleMania main event.
Triple H is one of WWE's finest evil doers as well, but Piper's interview prowess and manic energy make him a touch more memorable.
Undertaker is one of the few Superstars who could take out Andre. While Andre was one of WWE's biggest attractions early on, Undertaker's character is perhaps the most memorable in history.
He's preparing to enter his 22nd WrestleMania match, a place where the defense of his undefeated streak at the event has been just as anticipated as the WWE title contest.
- No. 1 Hogan over No. 5 Piper
- No. 3 Undertaker over No. 2 Hart
Just like at WrestleMania I, Hogan wins over Piper. As much as Piper has done for WWE, Hogan trumps him.
Hogan spearheaded WWE's move from a regional territory to a national power. The company was built around him for years, and he remains one of the world's most famous wrestlers, despite how long he's been out of action.
Undertaker's longevity pushes him ahead of Hart. Had Hart not left for WCW in 1997 and had been able to adapt to the changing industry as well as "The Deadman," this would have been a closer battle.
- No. 1 Hogan over No. 3 Taker
Undertaker has never been WWE's centerpiece the way that Hogan was. "The Hulkster" helped build WrestleMania; Undertaker later became its star attraction.
Undertaker has entertained us for years now, but Hogan became a pop-culture icon, a transcendent star.
Round of 64
- No. 1 Angle over No. 16 Tanaka
- No. 9 Kane over No. 8 Hardy
- No. 4 Punk over No. 13 Diesel
- No. 5 Benoit over No. 12 Santana
- No. 2 Sammartino over No. 15 Roberts
- No. 7 Warrior over No. 10 Hart
- No. 3 Flair over No. 14 JBL
- No. 11 Big Show over No. 6 Orton
Two giants win in upsets here. Kane's longevity puts him ahead of Hardy, who had a scorching year in 2009 and was a part of the great tag wars of the early 2000s.
Kane has been one of the company's most memorable characters from 1997 on, a stretch that now has been him playing WWE's evil Director of Operations.
Big Show pushes past Orton for similar reasons. While some fans argue that Big Show is better than Andre the Giant, one doesn't often hear folks claim that Orton is better than Hogan or other elite talents.
Round of 32
- No. 1 Angle over No. 9 Kane
- No. 4 Punk over No. 5 Benoit
- No. 2 Sammartino over No. 7 Warrior
- No. 3 Flair over No. 11 Big Show
No upsets this time around. The only real battle is with Flair and Big Show.
Big Show has had the longer career, but Flair's legacy carries more weight. Big Show won the top titles, but he was never positioned as the top guy. Flair served that role for a brief time, and his contributions with Evolution give him a resume with more vivid memories.
Punk's talking skills and big moments, such as his famous worked-shoot promo, have him edge out Benoit.
- No. 1 Angle over No. 4 Punk
- No. 2 Sammartino over No. 3 Flair
Flair's entire career would beat out Sammartino's. He was the more memorable character and the better talker who also boasted a better collection of great matches. "The Nature Boy" came and went from WWE, though.
He had a strong run in the early '90s before returning in the mid-2000s. Sammartino was around for longer, sitting comfortably in his WWE throne for close to two decades.
Longevity also gives Angle the edge. Punk's peak is essentially a two-year span from 2011-2013. Angle's success stretched on for the bulk of the Ruthless Aggression Era.
- No. 2 Sammartino over No. 1 Angle
Angle dominated much of the 2000s. Sammartino, though, was WWE's top star for an even longer stretch.
He was WWE's face for most of the '60s and '70s, the company's first true megastar. Had Angle stuck around and not spent the last several years with a rival company, the matchup would have been closer.
Royal Rumble Region
Round of 64
- No. 1 Austin over No. 16 JYD
- No. 8 Rogers over No. 9 Graham
- No. 4 Jericho over No. 13 Studd
- No. 5 Savage over No. 12 Strongbow
- No. 2 Cena over No. 15 Ramon
- No. 10 Muraco over No. 7 Booker
- No. 3 Edge over No. 14 Duggan
- No. 6 Lesnar over No. 11 Mysterio
Muraco scores an upset despite not being as well known with today's fans. The first-ever King of the Ring had a number of great, memorable feuds during his run in the '80s. He held the Intercontinental Championship, when that was a more prestigious belt, for stretches of 156 and 385 days.
Booker T's WCW work can't be used to counteract that.
The rest of the round plays out as expected. Lesnar's time as the No. 1 Superstar pushes him past Mysterio. World champs like Edge and Cena beat out non-world titleholders Duggan and Ramon, respectively.
Round of 32
- No. 1 Austin over No. 8 Rogers
- No. 5 Savage over No. 4 Jericho
- No. 2 Cena over No. 10 Muraco
- No. 6 Lesnar over No. 3 Edge
Jericho can't make it past Savage, who is one of WWE's most unforgettable stars. Jericho is an elite-level wrestler and talker, but Savage spent more time as world champ, holding it over a year in 1988.
Edge, despite being a fantastic heel, can't beat out Lesnar's red-hot time on top.
Lesnar was a compelling force of destruction in the early 2000s. His classics with Angle beat out Edge's best offerings, which are arguably his tag team Ladder matches where he shared the glory with five other men.
- No. 1 Austin over No. 5 Savage
- No. 2 Cena over No. 11 Lesnar
Had Lesnar not left for the NFL and UFC, he may have left an impression strong enough to push him past Cena. Instead, Cena's lengthy run as WWE's biggest star gets him the win here.
He has been the centerpiece of the company for years, the Hogan of his generation.
Savage can't best Austin here, a tough matchup. Austin was the top star of WWE's most successful period. Savage so often played the prince to Hogan's king.
- No. 1 Austin over No. 2 Cena
One of the toughest matches to call goes to "The Texas Rattlesnake" despite Austin's career ending early due to injuries.
Austin had the WWE's best rivalry ever (his battles with Vince McMahon) and generated fan reactions that seemed to rattle arenas. Cena, as popular as he is, is also a divisive figure, disliked by a significant portion of the audience.
There were never "Austin sucks!" chants when he was playing a babyface.
Survivor Series Region
Round of 64
- No. 1 Michaels over No. 16 Rude
- No. 9 Snuka over No. 8 Yokozuna
- No. 4 Guerrero over No. 13 Monsoon
- No. 5 Foley over No. 12 Kowalski
- No. 2 Rock over No. 15 Sid
- No. 7 DiBiase over No. 10 Valentine
- No. 3 Backlund over No. 14 Sheamus
- No. 11 Brazil over No. 6 Morales
Brazil gets a huge upset over the former IC champ. It took his magnetic charm to break racial barriers in the '60s when he challenged Sammartino for the WWE title several times.
Snuka also defies his seeding despite never being a world champ. His legacy instead is as a pioneer of high-flying wrestling. In addition to being one of the most memorable stars of his era, his dive from the top of the cage at Madison Square Garden is one of WWE's most iconic moments.
Kowalski can't quite compete with Foley's cult following and long list of classic moments. Foley's acting chops and unforgettable spots give him the edge despite not being as talented a mat worker as Kowalski.
Round of 32
- No. 1 Michaels over No. 9 Snuka
- No. 5 Foley over No. 4 Guerrero
- No. 2 Rock over No. 7 DiBiase
- No. 11 Brazil over No. 3 Backlund
Brazil's surprise run continues by knocking off a former world champ. His popularity gives him the advantage over a man whose long run as the top star isn't as memorable as those of his peers.
DiBiase's excellence as a heel can't compete with The Rock's charisma. Michaels' big-match history has him beat out the Hall of Famer Snuka.
- No. 1 Michaels over No. 5 Foley
- No. 2 Rock over No. 11 Brazil
Foley's contributions can't compete with Michaels'. The argument that Michaels is WWE's greatest in-ring performer is an easy one. He got the most out of his opponents again and again, Foley included.
The Rock may be WWE's best talker ever. That and his athletic prowess give him the win here.
- No. 1 Michaels over No. 2 Rock
Michaels' stellar run at the end of his career affords him a close victory. After founding D-Generation X and being a pillar of the New Generation Era, Michaels came back in the mid-2000s and delivered masterpiece after masterpiece.
The Rock's character is more memorable, but no one's collection of greatest hits is as extensive as what Michaels put together.
Final Four and Championship Match
- No. 1 Hogan over No. 2 Sammartino
- No. 1 Austin over No. 1 Michaels
- No. 1 Austin over No. 1 Hogan
Sammartino's stretch as WWE's cornerstone was longer, but he didn't affect the company the way Hogan did. WrestleMania may not have succeeded had it not been built around Hogan. His marketability helped WWE become far more mainstream.
In terms of in-ring production, Michaels wins. Factoring in the brightness of each man's star power, though, leads to Austin advancing. Austin was the MVP of the era more fans pine for, a time when WWE knocked its best competitor out of commission.
Micheals didn't affect business in that way.
That leaves Hogan and Austin in a dream bout to determine the top WWE star of all time. If Hogan is WWE's Babe Ruth, Austin is its Hank Aaron, surpassing him years later.
Wrestling Observer Newsletter handed out a number of negative awards to Hogan, including four Worst Worked Match of the Year prizes. Hogan was a megastar and pop-culture figure, but he wasn't nearly the performer that Austin was.
Austin had an all-time great match against Hart at WrestleMania 13. His battles with Foley, Angle and The Rock were fantastic as well. Hogan's resume just doesn't hold up.
In the end, one-half of WWE's Mt. Rushmore collides and Austin emerges the winner.
Today's stars will try their best to match what Austin did as their careers progress, but it's a Texas-sized legacy they have to compete with. This is one championship that will be nearly impossible to take from him.