In honor of me turning 30, I’m compiling 30 different top-30 lists on a wide variety of topics ranging from trivial interests of mine to meaningful life moments. Read the introductory post for more background information on my 30 at 30 project. Reminder: there is no scientific rationale for these lists. They were composed by a panel of one—me.
When people find out that I am a huge WWE fan, they generally have two reactions. Initially, they’re surprised, even shocked. Once I confirm that yes, I, the educated, well-adjusted, mild-mannered English teacher rank WWE’s Monday Night Raw second among my all-time favorite TV shows, their first question is always a variation of this: You know it’s all fake, right?
Yes, I know the outcomes of the matches are predetermined. The idea of professional wrestling as legitimate competition was something I gave up on as a toddler when my dad introduced me to the WWF (The company was originally known as The World Wrestling Federation before a dispute with The World Wildlife Fund forced them to change to World Wrestling Entertainment in 2002). The problem is that everyone asking that question is missing the point entirely.
WWE accurately rebranded “professional wrestling” as “sports entertainment” a few decades ago. It’s only a sport inasmuch as the people performing it are athletes. WWE superstars have comparable characteristics with other professional athletes in terms of needing strength, speed, agility, reaction time, etc. to excel at their craft. That said, the key word in the phrase “sports entertainment” is “entertainment.” Whether you attend the show live or tune in on television, watching WWE is no different than going to the movies or watching your favorite series on HBO. Is Star Wars or The Dark Knight or The Godfather or Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad or The Simpsons real? No, of course not. They contain varying levels of realism, but ultimately, they are forms of entertainment. No one walks up to someone after they come out of the movie theater saying, “You know it’s all fake, right? Why do you even bother watching that crap?” But it happens all the time for wrestling fans.
In order to fully enjoy the WWE, you have to allow for a suspension of disbelief. By entering into the WWE Universe, the performers and audience share a wink-wink agreement that while we all know this is a show, part of the fun of the show is in the pretending that the matches and feuds and wars of words are real. When you watch a good movie, the actors aren’t actors, they become the characters and you invest in the story being told. Wrestling storylines work the exact same way.
At it’s best, sports entertainment is an art form that combines elements from genres including sports, action, comedy, drama, romance and more. The larger than life personalities are all part of the show.
Traditionally, WWE has catered to a male audience, leading some to refer to it as a soap opera for guys. Admittedly, that kind of thinking tends to lead into some narrow-minded territory and some questionable decisions by those in charge at WWE. Over the years, one of the most legitimate criticisms of pro wrestling and the WWE specifically has been about their treatment and portrayal on screen of women and minorities. I’m not here to defend some of the poor choices WWE has made in the past. Instead, I prefer to follow the lead of progressive-minded wrestling fans like David Shoemaker, Brandon Stroud, and Aubrey Sitterson, who are among a burgeoning crowd of so-called “smart” Internet wrestling fans that don’t fit the traditional, stereotypical ideological portrait of wrestling fans.
Shoemaker, AKA The Masked Man, writes and co-hosts the Cheap Heat podcast with Peter Rosenberg for Grantland. He also recently published a book called The Squared Circle: Life, Death, and Pro Wrestling. Stroud writes a weekly “Best and Worst of Raw” column for Uproxx’s wrestling spinoff “With Spandex” that adeptly sprinkles in social commentary along with general wrestling observations and comedy bits. Finally, Sitterson is the host of “Straight Shoot,” which is dubbed “The World’s Smartest Rasslin Talk Show.”
Having voices like these in the world of wrestling is a big part of what has kept me around for my third tour of duty as a diehard wrestling fan. And they give me hope that some of the cringe-worthy things that have happened in the past in WWE either won’t happen again, or, more likely, will be rightfully skewered by the world’s greatest critic (The Internet) if they do happen again.
Quickly, here’s my life history with wrestling. I was introduced sometime around the age of 3 by my dad. That would be in 1987 when WrestleMania III packed a reported 93,000+ fans into the Pontiac Silverdome in Detroit, Michigan, to watch Hulk Hogan slam Andre the Giant and retain the world championship. I was a full fledged Hulkamaniac for the rest of the 80s and early 90s. My brother Mike was born in ’87, and some of his first words/sounds were wrestling related, including “Barber” (for Brutus “The Barber” Beefcake) and “Haaaaaw!” (for “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan). The Hulkamania era was a wholesome time for wrestling fans my age, as Hogan beckoned us to “say our prayers and take our vitamins” to become a real American hero like him some day.
As Hogan faded out of the spotlight and tried his hand (unsuccessfully) in Hollywood, I was hit or miss in terms of watching wrestling in the mid-90s, but by the time the Attitude Era took off in the late 90s circa the infamous “Montreal Screwjob” incident of November , I was fully invested again, watching Raw every Monday Night along with Mike. In July of 1998 I even launched my own online wrestling league called the Chat Room Wrestling League (CRWL) that combined elements of role play and video game simulation.
By the time I graduated high school in 2003, my interest in wrestling had waned. Throughout the rest of the decade, I was an on-again, off-again viewer. I would typically catch WrestleMania and a handful of episodes of Raw every year, but by the end of the 2000s, I was a pretty casual fan. Then, CM Punk happened. In June of 2011, Punk’s legendary “pipe bomb” interview broke into the news cycle because it seemed so real that people were questioning whether it was a “work” (wrestling speak for “part of the script”) or a “shoot” (meaning it was real and unplanned, which does occasionally happen). The Internet was buzzing, and I was intrigued to see what all the fuss was about. Punk soon thereafter won the title and became the star of the show, and I was hooked once again.
Punk was so good on the mic that he even won my wife Jessie’s fandom. She even owns a “Best in the World” ringer T-shirt with his name on it. For a period of several months early in our marriage, we watched Raw together every Monday. Unfortunately, both Jessie and Punk have since parted ways with WWE, but I have remain entrenched in action.
Last year, I had fun chatting occasionally with a few of the seniors in my journalism class who were WWE fans themselves. The introduction of the WWE Network earlier this year also made being a wrestling fan roughly 1,000 times more fun.
At this point, I think it’s safe to say that I’m a WWE fan for life in the same way that I’m a fan of the Lakers, Raiders, and Wolverines. There may be some seasons that are better than others, and I may be more or less invested during different seasons of my own life. But I’m not ashamed to say that I’m a WWE fan. Maybe it’s not for everyone. Maybe it’s not for you. That’s OK. Just don’t tell me your reason is because it’s fake, or I’ll send this guy to your house:
The following is a list of my favorite 30 WWE performers of all-time. “Favorite” encompasses mostly characters I loved as well as a few of those I loved to hate. The list includes singles wrestlers, tag teams, announcers, managers, and more. Enjoy!
30. The Hurricane
There are many bigger names left off this list, but I always got a kick out of The Hurricane’s superhero schtick.
29. Stacy Keibler
One of my favorite divas of all-time. Her WWE career earned her a spot on Dancing With the Stars, which catapulted her into a different level of celebrity.
28. Bobby “The Brain” Heenan
It can be argued that the biggest heel (wrestling speak for “bad guy”) of the late 1980s and early 90s was not Andre the Giant or King Kong Bundy or “The Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase but rather a manager. Heenan didn’t need to wrestle to get the fans to hate him. His mouth accomplished that just fine. In today’s WWE, Paul Heyman has ascended to the throne Heenan once occupied, masterfully working the crowd with his words while letting his managed wrestlers take care of the physical aspects of the business.
27. Jim Ross
There have been a lot of iconic wrestling announcers over the years. Gorilla Monsoon, “Mean” Gene Okerlund, and Jesse “The Body” Ventura all spring to mind. In my opinion, none of them compare to Jim Ross AKA Good Ol’ JR. The proud Oklahoman debuted in the WWE at WrestleMania IX and went on to be the voice of the company for nearly two decades, including the Attitude Era. His famously over-the-top play-by-play calls are often dubbed over footage of horrific/shocking/funny events and posted on YouTube.
They weren’t the originals, but between the face paint, the outfits, and the killer entrance theme, Demolition made being bad cool.
25. Bray Wyatt
Wyatt is arguably the best on the mic in WWE today. He’s great in the ring too. Despite being a heel, his charisma has made him popular among fans of my ilk. The future appears to be very bright for this creepy cult leader.
24. Ahmed Johnson
Johnson was a powerhouse who spent time in WWE during the mid-late 90s. His finisher, the Pearl River Plunge was one of my all-time favorite moves.
23. Bam Bam Bigelow
Between his flame-decorated body suit and his tattooed head, Bam Bam Bigelow had an iconic look. He was also one of the most agile big men ever to compete in the squared circle.
22. The Junkyard Dog
When I was a youngster, my babysitter gave me an oversized JYD T-shirt as a gift. It became a night shirt that I slept in for years.
21. The Legion of Doom
Known as the Road Warriors before arriving in WWE in the early 90s, Hawk and Animal were the coolest. Face paint? Check. Spiked shoulder pads? Check. Big muscles? Check. There’s a reason why the only wrestling buddy I ever owned was one half of the LOD.
Chyna debuted as a bodyguard for Triple-H. Dubbed “The 9th Wonder of the World” (because former WWE superstar Andre the Giant had been the 8th), Chyna was a dominant female force like the world of wrestling had never seen before and really has never seen since. Eventually, after splitting from Triple-H, not only did Chyna win the Women’s Championship, she also won the Intercontinental Title twice and had memorable feuds against the likes of Jeff Jarrett and Chris Jericho. Her career after wrestling has been controversial to say the least, but there is no denying her place in history as one of the best female wrestlers ever.
19. The Undertaker
I was never a big Undertaker fan, but my respect for his commitment to the craft grew year after year when he would steal the show at WrestleMania. The Undertaker’s 21-match undefeated streak at WrestleMania finally came to an end earlier this year. The shocked reactions of fans around the world was a perfect example of how wrestling fans can get so invested into a storyline.
18. “The Heartbreak Kid” Shawn Michaels
Like the Undertaker, HBK was never my top guy to cheer during his prime. Still, he is unquestionably one of the best ever to lace up a pair of boots. Nicknamed “The Showstopper” and “Mr. WrestleMania” Michaels was always at his best on the big stage. His 60-minute Iron Man match at WrestleMania XII against Bret Hart was a clinic on how to tell a story in the ring.
17. Triple-H and Stephanie McMahon
Known collectively as The Authority, they are a real-life power couple who have been as good as anyone at drawing heat in WWE over the past year. Triple-H still wrestles occasionally, but I think he’s even better as the know-it-all COO who married the boss’s daughter. Meanwhile Stephanie works the crowd tremendously well and is set to get back in the ring herself this Sunday at SummerSlam.
16. D-Lo Brown
D-Lo’s WWE career began as an also-ran member of the Nation of Domination. For some reason, I always enjoyed his bobblehead-esque celebrations as well as the gimmick when he wrestled with a chest protector.
15. Vince McMahon
In the 80s and early 90s, Vince McMahon was a straight-man play-by-play commentator who unabashedly supported the top faces (wrestling term for “good guys”) like Hulk Hogan and the Ultimate Warrior). While some people knew he was the owner of the company, it was never acknowledged on air. Then, in 1997, everything changed with the infamous Montreal Screwjob. From that point on, “Vince McMahon” became “Mr. McMahon” a character that played off of the real-life incident. Mr. McMahon quickly became the most hated personality on WWE television. It was a stroke of genius. Everyone watching was waiting with bated breath for the rich, old boss to get what he had coming to him. He was a character everyone really loved to hate.
14. Ms. Elizabeth
She was “The First Lady of Wrestling.” Ms. Elizabeth embodied the ideal of what I thought a woman should be, and I think it’s safe to say that most wrestling fans felt similarly. As the manager for Randy “Macho Man” Savage, the lovely Elizabeth was always gracious, even though her man was often undeserving of her kindness.
13. Randy “Macho Man” Savage
Savage, in stark contrast with Elizabeth, was loud and brash. However, few wrestlers were ever blessed with the combined skills on the mic and in the ring as was the Macho Man.
12. “Stone Cold” Steve Austin
The biggest star of the Attitude era was a beer-swilling, middle-finger gesturing, bald-headed badass from Texas named “Stone Cold” Steve Austin. He was crass and anti-authority—making him a huge hit with the rebellious young male demographic WWE targeted. His black and white Austin 3:16 T-shirt is one of the most iconic pieces of merchandise in wrestling history.
11. Kurt Angle
Angle, a former Olympic gold medalist in wrestling, transitioned to sports entertainment as smoothly as any crossover athlete ever. His comedic timing on the mic was always great, and his work in the ring was second-to-none as he incorporated his amateur wrestling background into his WWE style.
Personally I enjoyed Edge most when he was being goofy with tag team partner Christian. They did a bit where they’d goofily pose for five seconds ” for the benefits of those with flash photography” before their matches. His spear of Jeff Hardy off the 20-foot ladder at WrestleMania X-Seven was a jaw-dropping moment I’ll never forget.
Edge went on to have a decorated singles career as the “Rated-R Superstar,” highlighted by another memorable moment at WrestleMania when he speared Mick Foley through a flaming table. This clip is pretty gruesome, so I’ll link to rather than embedding it here.
9. Owen Hart/The Blue Blazer
Owen Hart tragically died at a WWE event on May 23, 1999, when a stunt went terribly wrong. When I heard the news as a 14-year-old fan, I was truly shaken. It remains one of the most impactful celebrity deaths of my lifetime. Whether he was wrestling as Owen or the masked character The Blue Blazer, Hart was a tremendous competitor, and by all accounts, an even better person.
8. George “The Animal” Steele
There was a time when George was a feared heel wrestler, but by the time I was a fan, George was a humorous, lovable, simple-minded face. My brother Mike and I often played with our wrestling action figures as children, and through those experiences we had a lot of fun pretending to be George, whose antics and shenanigans would constantly infuriate other wrestlers, including Jake “The Snake” Roberts.
7. Mick Foley
Whether he was wrestling as Mankind, Dude Love, or Cactus Jack, Mrs. Foley’s baby boy gave 100 percent every time he wrestled. He earned the nickname “The Hardcore Legend” for all the pain he put his body through. From explosives to barbed wire to thumb tacks to steep falls through tables, Foley lived through it all. His “Hell in a Cell” match with The Undertaker at the 1998 King of Ring pay per view is one of the most talked about matches in WWE history.
Today, he’s traveling the country telling stories as a standup comedian. I was fortunate enough to meet him and get a photo with him when his tour came through Erie, so I can officially cross that off my bucket list!
6. Daniel Bryan
Daniel Bryan’s WrestleMania 31 was one for the ages. It was the classic underdog’s tale. After months of being shortchanged by The Authority, being told he was nothing more than a B+ player, Bryan finally got his moment to shine. He beat Triple-H in a grueling match to begin the night, which earned him a spot in the main event against Batista and Randy Orton for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship. Bryan overcame the odds and won that match too, ascending to the top of the mountain as the man in WWE. His “Yes!” chant had become a movement and all seemed to be going well. Unfortunately, a serious neck injury forced him to forfeit the title soon thereafter, and he has yet to return to active competition. Here’s hoping that he haven’t seen the last of Daniel Bryan in a WWE ring.
5. Ultimate Warrior
No one has ever taken the WWE by storm quite like the Ultimate Warrior did. His entrance music was the perfect fit for his character. As soon as the guitar riff hit, Warrior could be seen sprinting to the ring. His matches weren’t usually long, and his promos rarely made sense, but the Warrior had a charismatic magnetism that made him one of the biggest stars of his era.
4. The Rock
The Rock has gone on to have one of the most successful post-wrestling careers ever as a bonafide Hollywood movie star. Long before he was lighting up the big screen though, The Rock was tearing it up in the ring and especially on the mic. The Rock’s catchphrases were as much a part of his success as his wrestling. “Finally, the Rock has come back to [insert city here]!” “Do you smell what the Rock is cookin’?” “The millions … AND MILLIONS of Rock’s fans.” And I could go on and on. He was known as the The People’s Champ, The Great One, and The Most Electrifying Man in Sports Entertainment. His legendary feuds with “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and Triple-H defined the Attitude Era. He’s also been a part of some epic WrestleMania dream matches with icons from other eras, facing Hulk Hogan at WrestleMania X-8 and battling John Cena at WrestleMania 29 and 30.
3. CM Punk
I already wrote about how Punk is the man primarily associated with me getting back into wrestling a few years ago. Unfortunately, he left WWE after the Royal Rumble this year for undisclosed reasons and hasn’t spoken publicly about the situation ever since. At this point it looks dire, but I hope we have not seen the last of “The Best in the World” in a WWE ring.
2. Hulk Hogan
If you said the WWE wouldn’t exist today without Hulk Hogan, you’d probably be right. Hogan and Hulkamania was the driving force in WWE in the 80s and early 90s. He main evented the first WrestleMania and helped usher in the Rock ‘N’ Wrestling era, which garnered mainstream exposure for the promotion. Although he left for WCW in 1994 and later formed the revolutionary heel faction new World order with Scott Hall and Kevin Nash, Hogan eventually returned to the WWE and was welcomed by an adoring mass of nostalgic fans who essentially cheered him out of the nWo’s black and white and back into the classic red and yellow attire that has been synonymous with Hulkamania for decades. Hogan was and is a larger than life superstar. He is the most recognizable character in the history of pro wrestling and ranked ahead of Batman and the Ninja Turtles in terms of superhero status for childhood me.
1. Bret “The Hitman” Hart
Bret Hart typically punctuated his promos by saying, “I’m the best there is, the best there was, and the best there ever will be.” While mic work was not his forte, Hart did his best talking in the ring. The son of legendary trainer Stu Hart, Bret learned his craft in the famous Hart Family Dungeon. He was as technically sound a wrestler as the WWE has ever seen. He was a two-time tag team champion (with partner Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart in The Hart Foundation), two-time Intercontinental Champion, and five-time World Wrestling Federation Champion. Although the aforementioned Montreal Screwjob incident of 1997 will always be the most talked about moment in his career, Hart’s legacy ought to be more than that. Re-watch some of his matches on the WWE Network, and it’s clear that he earned the nickname “The Excellence of Execution” as a master in the ring. He also earned my respect and admiration as my favorite competitor of all-time.