Professional wrestling is perhaps the greatest combination of athleticism and theatre.
Its biggest stars must be able to flip, flop and fall in perfect synchronization without seriously hurting themselves all while trying to sell to those watching that there is some sense of realism to what they do.
The quality of the “sport” of wrestling has diminished some over the years, while the quality of the entertainment has risen (or dropped) to a level that rivals your favorite reality television series.
Nonetheless, the past 25 years has showcased arguably the greatest collection of talent in the history of professional wrestling. There are some notable names omitted from this list, but with room for only ten spots not every great superstar found his name on the list.
Here’s some things I considered in making my decision.
Popularity, wrestling ability, career length, career success, notable matches, notable moves and legacy.
Here are the top 10 wrestlers of the past 25 years.
Finishing Move: Flying Elbow
Notable Titles Held: Five-time World Champion (WCW and WWE), 1987 WWF “King of the Ring,” 1995 WCW World War 3 winner
Notable matches: WrestleMania III vs. Ricky Steamboat, WrestleMania IV won 14-man tournament for vacant WWF Championship, WrestleMania V vs. Hulk Hogan, WrestleMania VII vs. Ultimate Warrior, Spring Stampede 98’ vs. Sting
The Macho Man was the perfect blend of flamboyance and grace in the ring. He wowed crowds for three decades with his trademark dark shades, stylish headbands, dazzling ring attire, matching cowboy hat and the lovely Elizabeth by his side.
At WrestleMania III, he was part of arguably the greatest match in WrestleMania history when he battled Ricky the “Dragon” Steamboat for the Intercontinental title.
The following year he defeated four men in one night to win his first WWF Championship, which Savage would hold for over a year (371 days to be exact) before dropping it to Hulk Hogan at WrestleMania V.
Over the years, Savage had feuds in both WCW and WWF with ring stars Jake the “Snake” Roberts, The Ultimate Warrior, Ric Flair, Lex Luger, Crush and Diamond Dallas Page.
His star shined brightest in the late 80’s and early 90’s when he won multiple world titles in both WCW and WWE. Savage would also enjoy a brief run in TNA wrestling before retiring from the ring in 2005.
Whether he was snapping a Slim Jim or slapping around his foes, the “Macho Man” always stood out among the competition.
Regardless of the circumstance, fans were always treated to a display of pomp when Savage wrestled. He is one of the greatest of all-time and will be missed. Oh Yeah!
Finishing Move(s): The Rock Bottom, The People’s Elbow
Notable Titles: nine-time WWE/WCW World Champion, five-time Tag Team Champion, two-time Intercontinental Champion and 2000 Royal Rumble winner
Notable Matches: WrestleMania X-Seven vs. Steve Austin, WrestleMania X8 vs. Hulk Hogan, Survivor Series ’98 tournament, SummerSlam vs. Triple H in a ladder match, WrestleMania XIX vs. Steve Austin
He defined cool and was one of the top wrestlers of the WWE’s “attitude era.” There was never a microphone that The Rock didn’t like. He took cheap shots at opponents, the fans and media personalities.
He captured his first World Championship after winning a tournament at Survivor Series ’98.
The Rock will always be remembered for his various feuds. He had thrilling matches against Stone Cold Steve Austin, Triple H, Ken Shamrock and Mick Foley.
His “I Quit” match with Mick Foley at the Royal Rumble was one of the most violent matches in wrestling history.
The Rock’s popularity was at an all-time high when he headlined both Wrestle Mania X-Seven and X8. In 2004, The Rock gave up his flamboyant on-screen persona and traded it in for a movie career.
However in 2011, The Rock returned to host Wrestle Mania XXVII. The Rock entered into a feud with John Cena and the two are set to headline Wrestle Mania XXVIII.
Expect The Rock to blow the roof off the Georgia Dome and “Lay the smack down" on John Cena.
Finishing Move(s): The Pedigree
Notable Titles Held: 13-time World Champion, 1997 King of the Ring, 2002 Royal Rumble winner, Intercontinental and European Champion
Notable Matches: Summer Slam vs. The Rock in a ladder match, Royal Rumble 2000 vs. Mankind, No Way Out 2000 vs. Mankind, WrestleMania X8 vs. Chris Jericho, WrestleMania XX vs. Shawn Michaels and Chris Benoit
When it’s all said and done, Triple H may top this list. He can lay claim to 23 world titles in the WWE. He was also a member of one of the greatest stables of all-time: D-Generation X.
During the late 90s, Triple H spent most of his time feuding with The Rock and his faction the Nation of Domination.
However after the dissolution of DX, Triple H became one of the company’s biggest stars. He would turn heel and win his first World title at SummerSlam ’99.
Over the next several years, Triple H would win and lose the World Championship a number of times. He secured one of his biggest victories at Wrestle Mania 2000 in a Four Corner’s match over The Rock, Mick Foley and the Big Show.
Triple H’s career has seen many ups and downs due to numerous knee and hamstring injuries. It was at WrestleMania X8 that Triple H returned from an injury to win the Undisputed World Title from Chris Jericho.
At WrestleMania XX, Triple H, Chris Benoit and Shawn Michaels had one of the most epic matches in WrestleMania history.
In 2009, Triple H secured his record setting eighth WWE World Championship. He's won a total of 13 World titles.
Triple H is no longer a regular headliner for WWE events and now serves as the company’s Chief Operating Officer. Still, the “Cerebral Assassin” has a lot left in the tank and may have a few more title runs left in him.
Finishing Move(s): Sweet Chin Music
Notable Titles Held: four-time World Heavyweight Champion, two-time Royal Rumble winner
Notable Matches: WrestleMania 12 vs. Bret Hart in an “Iron Man Match”, WrestleMania X Ladder match vs. Razor Ramon, In Your House: Bad Blood ’97 vs. The Undertaker, WrestleMania XIX vs. Chris Jericho, WrestleMania XXVI vs. The Undertaker
The Icon, The Show Stopper, The Main Event, The HeartBreak Kid.
Shawn Michaels has had a number of names in his 25-plus year career. The best name to call Michaels might be “winner.”
He’s won four World titles, two consecutive Royal Rumbles and was the first WWE wrestler to ever win the Grand Slam Championship. Michaels also won PWI (Pro Wrestling Illustrated’s) Match of the Year Award 11 times, a record for that award.
Michaels began his career as a tag-team wrestler with Marty Jannetty, but found his greatest success as a single’s performer.
Michaels has been part of some of the most thrilling matches in WWE history. At WrestleMania X he would lose the first ever Ladder Match for the Intercontinental Title to Razor Ramon.
It was at WrestleMania XII where Michaels would fulfill his boyhood dream and win his first of four World Championships against Bret Hart in an Iron Man match. Michaels and Hart would fight to a 60-minute draw before Michaels finally won the bout in sudden death.
Hart and Michaels feuded both on screen and backstage. Their rivalry reached a boiling point in 1996.
Michaels won a controversial match against Bret Hart in what forever became known as the “Montreal Screwjob.”
Michaels' career took a downfall in 1998 when he herniated two disks in his back in a match against The Undertaker. Michaels valiantly performed with the injury in a match against Steve Austin at WrestleMania XIV. The back injury would force Michaels into retirement.
After four years of inactivity, Michaels returned to the ring in 2002 and competed for the next several years.
Michaels would highlight several WrestleMania’s most notably was a WrestleMania XXIV victory over Ric Flair that ended the legend’s WWE career.
Michaels would see his own career ended after a WrestleMania XXVI loss to The Undertaker.
The night before WrestleMania XXVII, Michaels was named to the WWE Hall of Fame and now serves as an ambassador for the company.
Finishing Move(s): Stone Cold Stunner
Notable Titles Held: 1996 King of the Ring, three-time Royal Rumble winners, six-time WWE World Heavyweight Champion
Notable Matches: WrestleMania 13 v. Bret Hart, WrestleMania 14 vs. Shawn Michaels, ECW December to Dismember 1995 vs. Mikey Whipwreck and The Sandman, WrestleMania X-Seven vs. The Rock, SummerSlam 1998 vs. The Undertaker
Steve Austin’s career has seen its share of peaks and valleys.
He was a good wrestler in WCW but never reached the main event status he enjoyed for so many years in the WWE. He had moderate success as a member of the now defunct ECW but it was his “Stone Cold” persona in the WWE that made him one of the most popular stars in WWE history.
Austin was anti-establishment at its best. He wore black trunks and boots, had a smoking skull vest and his theme music opening of breaking glass became one of the most recognized sounds in professional wrestling.
“Stone Cold” was a foul-mouthed, beer chugging, middle finger saluting rebel. This character created by Austin is arguably the most popular in the history of professional wrestling.
He was a six-time World Champion, the company’s fifth Triple Crown winner and also won the Royal Rumble three times in five years.
Austin is best known for his feuds with Triple H, The Rock and most notably with Vince McMahon. His trademark slogans “and that’s the bottom line cuz Stone Cold said so,” and “Austin 3:16 said I just whupped you’re a…," became household catchphrases.
Over the years, there was not a single person who was safe from receiving his patented “Stone Cold” stunner finishing maneuver.
Neck and back injuries would force Steve Austin into an early retirement but he still makes periodic appearances on WWE programming and was named to the WWE Hall of Fame in 2009.
Austin currently hosts the WWE reality show Tough Enough.
Finishing Move(s): The Scorpion Deathlock, Scorpion Deathdrop
Notable Titles Held: Fifteen-time Heavyweight champion, WCW Tag Team Champion, WCW United States Champion, 1991 Battle Bowl Champion
Notable Matches: The Great American Bash 1990 vs. Ric Flair, Starrcade ’90 vs. The Black Scorpion, SuperBrawl w/ Lex Luger vs. The Steiner Brothers, Starrcade ’97 vs. “Hollywood” Hulk Hogan, SuperBrawl VIII vs. Hulk Hogan
Sting is arguably the most popular wrestler of all-time. He was named “Most Popular Wrestler of the Year” four times by PWI, which is more than any other wrestler.
He became known as WCW’s “Franchise” and was its most important star from the late '80s until the company folded in 2001.
Sting is currently the only wrestler to ever win the NWA, WCW and TNA world titles and is considered by many to be the best wrestler to never step foot in a WWE ring.
Sting was WCW’s brightest star in the '90s along with his trademark blonde flattop and various face paints.
Sting feuded with many of the company’s biggest stars including Sid Vicious, Lex Luger, The Great Muta, Cactus Jack, Vader, Nikita Koloff, Rick Rude and most famously Ric Flair.
Flair and Sting feuded for years and it was Sting who would defeat Flair in the last WCW match ever.
The most dramatic moment of Sting’s career happened in 1996. Sting traded in his bright blonde hair and carefree persona and transformed into a gloomy and dark Sting.
The new Sting wore all black, covered his face in white paint and would often descend from the rafters during shows. Sting would not speak on WCW programming for over a year.
It was during this time period that WCW held a distinct edge over the WWE in the Monday night ratings “war.”
Some of WCW’s success had to be attributed to the presence of Sting. Many fans tuned into the WCW programming to find out if and when Sting would make his next appearance.
In December of 1998, Sting captured the WCW title from Hulk Hogan in the main event of Starrcade.
Sting continued with WCW until the company was bought out in 2001.
Sting joined the TNA wrestling company in 2006 where he still competes under the same name.
The man they call Sting is one of the greatest professional wrestling stars ever.
Finishing Move(s): Tombstone, The Last Ride, Hell's Gate
Notable Titles Held: Seven-time World Heavyweight Champion, six-time Tag Team Champion, 19-0 WrestleMania record
Notable Matches: WrestleMania XXVI vs. Shawn Michaels, King of the Ring ‘98 vs. Mankind, WrestleMania XXVII vs. Triple H, Survivor Series ’91 vs. Hulk Hogan, WrestleMania XIV vs. Kane
There may not be another wrestler in the history of sports entertainment that’s put more chills down the spine or goose bumps on the arms of fans and his competitors as The Undertaker.
The Undertaker made his WWE debut at Survivor Series in 1990. The character was modeled after a mortician. He entered the ring wearing gray gloves, all black wrestling attire and resembled a pale corpse.
The Undertaker was managed by Paul Bearer, a short, pudgy guy who carried an urn that The Undertaker seemed to draw power from.
Early in his career The Undertaker would place his defeated opponents in body bags.
The Undertaker dismantled legendary superstar Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka at WrestleMania VII. The win would be his first WrestleMania victory and propel him on a streak that currently stands at 19.
The Undertaker has competed in more WrestleMania events than any other superstar in the company’s history and since debuting at WrestleMania VII, he has only not competed in two WrestleMania events.
The Undertaker’s list of WrestleMania victims reads like a Hall of Fame roster including Jimmy “SuperFly” Snuka, Jake the “Snake” Roberts, King Kong Bundy, Sid Vicious, Kevin Nash, The Big Bossman, Triple H (twice), Shawn Michaels (twice), Randy Orton, Ric Flair and Kane (twice).
The Undertaker is an eight time world champion who’s debuted in such matches as: The Casket Match, Buried Alive Match, The Inferno Match and Hell in a Cell.
He is undoubtedly entering the twilight of his career but make no mistake about it The Undertaker’s legend will live forever.
Finishing Move(s): The Sharpshooter
Notable Titles Held: Seven-time World Champion, WWE Tag-Team Champion, Intercontinental Champion, five-time United States Champion, 1991 & 1993 King of the Ring, 1994 Co-Royal Rumble winner
Notable Matches: WrestleMania XII vs. Shawn Michaels “Iron Man Match”, WrestleMania 13 vs. Steve Austin, SummerSlam ’91 vs. Mr. Perfect, SummerSlam‘92 vs. British Bulldog, WrestleMania VIII vs. Roddy Piper
Bret Hart might be the best technical wrestler there ever was. Hart is one of the greatest to ever lace up a pair of boots. He was able to brilliantly mix amateur wrestling with the theatrics that makes for compelling sports entertainment.
Hart’s career has spanned over three decades and he’s collected 32 titles in that time.
He won five WWE World titles and held the championship longer than any other wrestler in the '90s. He won two WCW World titles and was the first champion to be born outside the United States.
Hart can also lay claim to a record five United States championships and his two “King of the Ring” crowns is also a record.
Hart’s early WWE career was spent as a tag team wrestler with his brother-in-law James Neidhart. The pair combined to make one of the best tag teams of the ‘80s: the Hart Foundation.
It was in the '90s that the “Hitman” saw his greatest success as a single’s competitor.
Hart’s pink and black tights along with his mirrored sunglasses made him not only one of the most popular stars of the decade, but also one of the coolest.
Hart enjoyed several great matches as a member of the WWE.
He won his first Intercontinental Championship in a classic match with “Mr. Perfect” Curt Henning at SummerSlam ’91 and he would follow that up with another great match against his former brother-in-law Davey Boy Smith at the following year’s event.
Hart would win his first World title in 1992 against Ric Flair.
Hart was the company’s top superstar until he unceremoniously left in 1997 following the “Montreal Screwjob.”
Hart would find moderate success as a member of WCW from 1997-2000 but would never reach the some level of popularity that enjoyed as a member of the WWE in the '90s.
Hart would suffer a career ending and nearly debilitating injury at the hands of Bill Goldberg in December 1999. During the match Hart was kicked in the head and received a severe concussion.
Hart retired from the ring in 2000.
In 2009, Bret Hart returned to the WWE. It was the first time he’d been in a WWE ring since the “Montreal Screwjob” some 12 years earlier.
Since 2009, Hart continues to make guest appearances in the WWE. Some forty years after he debuted in a wrestling ring, Bret Hart is still “the best there is, the best there was, and the best there ever will be.”
Finishing Move(s): The Figure Four Leg-Lock
Notable Titles Held: Sixteen-time World Champion, five-time U.S. Champion, WWE Hall of Famer, NWA Hall of Famer, 1992 Royal Rumble Winner
Notable Matches: Starrcade ’83 vs. Harley Race, The Great American Bash ’86 vs. Dusty Rhodes in a steel cage, WrestleWar ’89 vs. Rick Steamboat, Fall Brawl ’95 vs. Arn Anderson, 1992 Royal Rumble
“He’s a kiss stealing, jet flying, limousine riding, styling and profiling son of a gun.” However Ric Flair is much more than that. For nearly four decades he’s been one of professional wrestling’s biggest and most influential stars.
“The Nature Boy” can lay claim to more world title reigns than any other wrestler. He is a seven-time NWA and WCW champion as well as a two-time WWE champion.
Incidentally, Flair joined Buddy Rogers as the only man to ever win the NWA and WWE championships. Rogers is the man who Flair replicated his “Nature Boy” style after. He also captured a record five U.S. championships in his career.
He was the leader of one of the most successful and feared stables of all-time, The Four Horsemen, and was a star in the NWA and WCW in the '90s and for a brief period he also worked in the WWE. Flair won the World title in all three organizations.
Flair won multiple titles with WCW in the '90s and was involved in many major storylines and feuds with the company until it folded in 2001.
After the fall of WCW, Flair returned to the WWE and won several titles and also formed a new stable known as “Evolution.”
“Evolution” was a group very similar to the Four Horsemen group of WCW. Flair served more as an advisor to younger champions Triple H, Bautista and Randy Orton.
Flair worked with the WWE until 2008 when he lost a “Retirement Match” to Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania XXIV, the match was voted “Match of the Year by PWI and Flair also received “Most Influential Wrestler of the Year.”
Flair currently works in TNA wrestling with long-time rivals Sting and Hulk Hogan.
In 2008, Flair was inducted into both the WWE and NWA Hall of Fame.
Finishing Move(s): The Leg Drop
Notable Titles Held: 12X World Heavyweight Champion, WWE Tag Team Champion, 1990 & 1991 Royal Rumble winner
Notable Matches: WrestleMania III vs. Andre the Giant, WrestleMania VI vs. The Ultimate Warrior, WrestleMania VII vs. Sgt. Slaughter, Bash at the Beach 1993 vs. Ric Flair, Bash at the Beach 1996 (heel turn match and NWO formation)
There have been a number of great wrestling stars over the past 25 years, but Hulk Hogan stands above the rest.
He is a 12-time world champion having won the WWE and WCW World titles six times in each. He was the first to win two consecutive Royal Rumbles.
For most of his career he used his “Hulkamania” persona complete with red- and-yellow ring attire. Hogan lived by his three “demandments:” training, eating your vitamins and saying your prayers. Hogan would encourage his fans to do the same.
Hulk Hogan’s ring entrances and after match celebrations became something of legend. They involved him flexing and hyping up the fans that he referred to as “Hulkamaniacs.”
Hogan kept this clean cut character until 1996 where he had arguably the most famous heel turn in the history of professional wrestling. Hogan turned his back on WCW, the fans and his friend Randy Savage.
The new Hogan became a leader of a new stable known as the NWO. Hogan went by the name “Hollywood” dyed his beard black, wore black and white ring attire and even spray painted the championship belt.
Hogan was part of several high-profile matches that included NBA players: Dennis Rodman and Karl Malone and even Tonight Show’s host Jay Leno. Hogan remained with WCW until the company folded in 2001.
After WCW, Hogan returned to the WWE where he combined both his “Hulkamania” and “Hollywood” Hogan characters. Hogan enjoyed two more stints with the company before leaving in 2007.
Hogan continues to wrestle as a member of TNA wrestling.
Hogan has transcended wrestling. He has made over twenty appearances in television and movies.
He is truly the most popular and most influential professional wrestler of all-time.