Ranking WWE's Greatest Technical/Mat Wrestlers of All Time
Some of WWE's most famous stars built their careers on their brute strength or on the vivid characters they played. Others mastered the craft of true wrestling.
These are the men who turned the suplex and the chinlock into elements of their own symphony.
In the patchwork of violence, acrobatics, soap opera and sport that is WWE, these ring tacticians used grappling to garner our attention.
Determining the best among the technical wrestlers is a difficult task.
There are no points to tally, no ERAs to compare. Ranking WWE's best mat workers is mostly the act of judging whose physical artistry is more exquisite than the next.
Taking into account the variety of moves that they mastered, how smoothly they transitioned from hold to hold and how well they composed a story with wrestling, here are WWE's best grapplers.
20. Larry Zbyszko
During the early part of his career, Larry Zbyszko displayed his tremendous wrestling skills against a variety of WWE opponents such as "Superstar" Billy Graham, Killer Kowalski and Bruno Sammartino.
Sammartino trained Zbyszko and the two eventually became embroiled in a bloody feud.
It was those battles that gave Zbyszko the most notoriety, but his more scientific stylings were his true strength. Ordinary moves like the side headlock seemed to be more intense, more dominating when he performed them.
Zbyszko was a master of making every move feel real and making the matches feel like sport. It's often the most outlandish characters that fans remember more than the great tacticians like Larry "the New Living Legend."
19. Iron Sheik
The Iron Sheik may be best remembered for his memorable character, his mighty moustache and profane shoot interviews, but the former WWE champ was one of the company's finest ring workers as well.
He was a stout, powerful wrestler.
Sheik often peppered his matches with cheap tactics, including using foreign objects, sometimes overshadowing how skillful he was in the ring.
He was especially adept at grinding opponents down with holds like the Camel clutch and the armbar.
Considering his amateur background, none of this comes as a surprise. The Sheik was an amateur wrestler in his native Iran.
Had WWE chosen him as something more than a transitional champion, he could have delivered technically-sound matches in main events across the country. Instead, the company went with Hulk Hogan as the long-term answer, which turned out pretty darn well.
18. Shawn Michaels
The Heartbreak Kid may be more known more for his showmanship, but Michaels is one of wrestling's best technicians as well.
Watch his 2007 Raw match against John Cena and you'll see a skilled grappler at work.
Michaels is smooth and natural when it comes to chain wrestling, but his more flashy moves often get more attention than his ground game.
A part of why Michaels has been won so many Match of the Year awards is because he can extend a match and up its realism with his skills on the mat.
WWE didn't often let him demonstrate his technical skills, but Finlay is one of the most underrated mat wrestlers ever.
His gimmick with WWE was more of a fight-loving brawler.
Between all those fists and shillelagh shots he delivered, Finlay often put on stunning displays of chain wrestling. While during his WWE stint he was never as quick as many of the men on this list, but he was always someone who provided realism for his matches.
His mat skills are no surprise considering that he grew up with the sport and as he told The Sun, wrestled as a teenager against men his father's age.
16. Ricky Steamboat
The best way to describe Ricky Steamboat in the ring is smooth.
He glided through the ring, locking in picture-perfect holds and pulling off the best arm drags in wrestling history.
Steamboat told Slam! Sports, "I was very particular in knowing to be in the right time at the right place." This subtle skill helped his matches flow well, added to their realism and made it easy to tell a story in the ring.
Much is made of Steamboat's classic WrestleMania III match against Randy Savage, but The Dragon showed off his wrestling brilliance against anyone he faced. It didn't matter if he was facing The Brooklyn Brawler or Chris Jericho while Steamboat was in his late 50s, Steamboat brought fans crisp, fluid performances.
15. Ric Flair
Ric Flair is more known as being a showman and an all-around great than a master of technical wrestling.
You don't get to be NWA Heavyweight Champion eight times without a significant amount of mat skills. He entertained fans through every hold of the numerous one-hour draws of his career.
He had a varied-enough toolbox to keep the match going, to keep its momentum throbbing.
Strip away his strutting, maniacal interviews, robes and overly dramatic moments and you are still left with one of the best wrestlers in history. From his crisp suplexes to the figure-four, Flair filled his matches with realistic, perfectly executed moves.
14. Arn Anderson
"The Enforcer" Arn Anderson remains one of the most underrated wrestlers, technical or otherwise, to ever lace up a pair of boots.
Aspiring wrestlers should watch and rewatch videos of his matches. Shadowing Anderson, one can watch a near-perfect hammerlock, figure four and chinlock.
But beyond individual moves, Anderson's strength was making a match flow, melding move after move together to create a captivating story in the ring.
There is a precision to his ring work that is on an elite level.
13. Ted DiBiase
Wrestling Observer Newsletter Best Technical Wrestler Award: 1981
Before WWE propelled his career with the unforgettable Million Dollar Man gimmick, Ted DiBiase was a well-respected technical wrestler.
DiBiase drew fans in with matches brimming with realism.
His maniacal, evil laugh and diamond-encrusted championship belt made him famous, but his skilled delivery of waistlocks and wristlocks got him into that position in the first place.
It didn't matter if he was facing lumbering guys like Hulk Hogan or inexperienced men like Ultimate Warrior, DiBiase served as the ring general. He provided the wrestling foundation for spectacle to be built upon.
12. Chris Jericho
Chris Jericho is so good at making people hate him via a microphone and so good at springboarding from the ring ropes, people tend to forget about his grappling skills.
Few men are as creative and precise with their counters.
Jericho's matches are filled with spectacularly well-executed submission holds and suplexes. Don't forget all the armbars he knows, either.
Like Shawn Michaels, Jericho mastered the art of elevating the entertainment element of pro wrestling, so much so that he sometimes doesn’t get the respect he deserves for the sport element of his game.
11. Curt Hennig
Bret Hart wrote of "Mr. Perfect" Curt Hennig on his blog, "With Curt Hennig, I was able to do slick moves that I wouldn't think of doing with most other guys. We adjusted to each other's timing in an epic back-and-forth battle where we constantly gave back to each other."
It's easy to understand Bret's respect for Hennig. Their matches, especially their battle at SummerSlam 1991, were wrestling clinics.
Even as his back injuries piled up, Hennig exquisitely executed every suplex, sleeper hold or snapmare.
His ability to make his opponent's moves look devastating was special, but so were his technical skills. He made wrestling a graceful, majestic art.
10. Owen Hart
The training that went on in Stu Hart's basement birthed some of pro wrestling's greatest mat wrestlers.
Those grueling low-tech sessions helped shape Owen Hart and he, like his brother, was one of the deftest performers to ever enter a WWE ring.
During his life, Owen was always compared to his brother, who was a bigger star. Comparing Owen to Bret is difficult as they were both masters of chain wrestling, of building to a match's climax with the perfect succession of moves.
Besides Owen’s radiant charm, the biggest difference between them was that Owen blended in more kicks and flying maneuvers in with classic mat action.
9. Eddie Guerrero
The Guerreros gave the wrestling world a number of great wrestlers, but none as talented and unforgettable as Eddie Guerrero.
Few wrestlers were more fluid, moving deftly from one hold to another.
Refer to his beautiful renditions of the vertical suplex, of the Gory special or any of his takedowns to see what wrestling should look like.
Eddie helped make WCW's cruiserweight division the go-to destination for quality wrestling. Much of the action in his matches with Rey Mysterio, Chris Jericho and the company’s various luchadors was high-flying, but they were also constant demonstrations of his technical prowess.
Eddie grew into a main-event star during his time in WWE. Working with Chris Benoit, Brock Lesnar and Kurt Angle, he helped produce some of the best technically sound matches in company history.
8. William Regal
William Regal is the type of wrestler who seemed to get better with age.
As his body slows, his toughness and wrestling acumen appears to be amplifying. Regal's arsenal is filled with impeccably delivered moves.
Young wrestlers would be wise to take notes when Regal uses the full nelson, hammerlock, STF or armbar.
Thankfully for fans, Regal has chosen to pass on his ring skills to the next generation. He has trained several wrestlers, the most notable among them being Daniel Bryan.
Regal's influence on Bryan is obvious. Bryan now utilizes many of Regal's signature moves including the dragon sleeper and the surfboard.
7. Bob Backlund
Wrestling Observer Newsletter Best Technical Wrestler Award: 1980
Bob Backlund's amateur background and elite mat skills led him to four WWE title reigns and a lengthy, successful career.
Backlund won the NCAA Division II heavyweight wrestling championship while he was a student at North Dakota State. His wrestling credentials shined in his matches against Billy Robinson and Antonio Inoki.
At the end of Backlund’s stay at the top of the company, he was in a way, a relic. Technical wrestling's importance in WWE lessened, shifting the focus to star power and marketability.
It's a shame because Backlund could have been the wrestling background against less ring-savvy stars like Hulk Hogan and King Kong Bundy.
Backlund excelled at various suplexes, the half nelson bridging cradle and made the crossface chicken wing his personal art medium.
6. Bret Hart
Say what you want about his interview skills or supposed lack of personality, precious few men could wrestle better than The Hitman.
It'd be even harder to find moves that Bret Hart didn't execute perfectly.
He carried what he'd learned from his father Stu, during those painful training sessions in the Hart Family Dungeon into WWE rings around the world.
It was primarily his technical abilities that carried him to the WWE Championship and that made him so popular in Canada and beyond.
No move exemplified The Hitman's technical wizardry than the sharpshooter. Tyson Kidd, The Rock and many others have done the move, but none as crisply and expertly as Bret.
5. Kurt Angle
Wrestling Observer Newsletter Best Technical Wrestler Award: 2002
It's no surprise that a man who won an Olympic gold medal in freestyle wrestling would be one of WWE's greatest technical wrestlers.
His amateur background was not only part of his gimmick, but the foundation for his wrestling style.
Sure he'd pop a foe with a timely punch when needed, but the majority of his in-ring weapons involved takedowns, suplexes, bodyscissors and submission holds.
Angle aced the transition from Olympic wrestler to pro by adding dramatic flair and personality to his game, but his wrestling acumen helped him to create numerous classic WWE matches.
4. Dean Malenko
Wrestling Observer Newsletter Best Technical Wrestler Award: 1996, 1997
Though he didn't have as many holds in his arsenal as his "Man of a 1,000 Holds" nickname suggests, Dean Malenko had one of the most abundant wrestling repertoires ever.
He delivered flawless versions of a multitude of suplexes, as well as a multitude of submission holds.
Malenko's matches were like jazz, marked by impressive improvisation, notes building on each other and appealing to purist fans.
If you were going to bet on a WWE superstar in a legit shoot match, you'd be hard pressed to find better many choices than Malenko.
3. Daniel Bryan
Wrestling Observer Newsletter Best Technical Wrestler Award: 2005-2011
It may seem too early to put Daniel Bryan on this list of grappling legends, but at this point in his career he has already proven to be one of the sport's all-time best.
Bryan hasn't been asked to display it in WWE as much, but he is a magician with submission holds. He transitions from one painful move to another with great fluidity.
The diversity of his in-ring toolbox shows off his elite wrestling skills.
He cranks his opponents' neck like no one else with the dragon sleeper, the crossface or Cattle Mutilation.
On wwe.com, William Regal talked about how Bryan gathered his knowledge from the best in the business, from grappling coach Neil Melanson to wrestlers in Britain and Japan.
Regal said, "He's taken bits from every single one of us, which makes him better than everybody else."
For him to win earn Wrestling Observer Newsletter's Best Technical Wrestler Award more times than any other wrestler, to win it seven consecutive times shows just how much respect he's garnered already.
2. The Dynamite Kid
Wrestling Observer Newsletter Best Technical Wrestler Award: 1984
The Dynamite Kid's classic matches with Tiger Mask in the early '80s should be made mandatory viewing for any wrestler going through training. The two masters had the crowd buzzing over banal moves like the wristlock and hip toss.
Throughout his career, Dynamite transitioned from move to move gracefully.
Every headlock, every Indian deathlock was done with superb precision and enough force to make his matches not only supremely realistic, but difficult to look away from.
No one has done a better snap suplex. No one has inspired such elite-level technical wrestlers.
The next man on the list, the best ever, idolized Dynamite.
1. Chris Benoit
Wrestling Observer Newsletter Best Technical Wrestler Award: 1994, 1995, 2000, 2003, 2004
Despite the horrific and tragic images Chris Benoit's name now conjures up, one can't have a discussion of WWE's greatest mat wrestlers without the man known as The Rabid Wolverine.
Benoit modeled much of his wrestling style after Dynamite Kid and in the end, surpassed his idol.
He reigned as a master of the suplex. His versions of the sharpshooter, the crossface and just about every wrestling move he performed were among the best ever.
WWE has understandably tried to remove Benoit from our collective memory, but in doing so has stripped their archives of some of the most technically-sound matches in company history.
Many superstars can thank him for providing the best match of their career. There may never be the excess of wrestling skill that filled the ring during Benoit vs. Kurt Angle, Benoit vs. Eddie Guerrero or Benoit vs. Bret Hart.