Happy Wednesday Everyone!
We continue on from last week as we pick up the countdown of my Top 50 Favourite Wrestlers. I should reiterate here that this isn’t supposed to be an objective list on who I think the best wrestlers are but rather a subjective list of the wrestlers that I personally find entertaining for one reason or another.
For those of you who weren’t here last week, please check the archives to get yourself updated on the first 15 selections if you feel like doing so.
Rey Mysterio Jr
The Match: Vs Eddy Guerrero, WCW Halloween Havoc (26th October 1997)
Rey Mysterio Jr is possibly one of the most famous Luchadores in wrestling history, and in addition to his fame he also has a bevy of highly rated and appreciated matches to his name as well. I first became aware of Rey Jr during his time in WCW when he had been unmasked and was tagging with Kidman and Konna in the group that would come to be known as The Filthy Animals. Those keen historians amongst you will of course know that Rey had already lost his mask by that stage, but he was still capable of delivering great matches in the ring and I quickly became a fan of Rey’s in-ring abilities.
However, it was only when I started going back to take a look at Rey’s work from ECW and WCW when he was still a masked sensation that it became clear to me just how good Rey really was. The ECW crowds could be very demanding, but they almost instantly took to Rey and his matches with Psicosis. Indeed, Psicosis was one of Rey’s earliest WCW opponents as well, with them tearing it up in a great match at Bash at the Beach 1996. Rey was so talented that he could often make up for his lack of height against bigger opponents due to his ability to wrestle as a believable underdog. The addition of the mask just made him all the bigger star, especially to youngsters.
WCW’s decision to unmask Rey can be questioned from now until the cows come home, especially as they did it in such a slapdash manner that sapped it of any real dramatic power. Rey lost a tag match to The Outsiders and then Kevin Nash treated the mask as something lame that he didn’t even want. At least when Chris Jericho took Juventud Guerrera’s mask he paraded it around for months in order to make it look like a trophy he was happy to have. WCW did this regularly though, where they would book a Luchadore to lose their mask and would treat the unmasking itself as an afterthought or something for comedy purposes.
It’s no surprise that WWE requested that Rey re-mask when he debuted for them in 2002, as it instantly made Rey seem like a bigger star and he soon got improbably over in the land of the giants that is WWE. Whether it was wrestling fellow cruiserweights such as Jamie Noble or Tajiri, or mixing it up with heavyweights such as Kurt Angle and Bradshaw, Rey regularly delivered the goods in the ring, with his mixture of high-flying and storytelling allowing him to bridge the gap and become a believable upper-mid-card star in the company.
Rey never fully managed to force his way into being a permanent Main Event star, with his Title reigns usually being brief before he was moved back down into the tag ranks or mid-card, but Rey did at least get to win the Smackdown Title at WrestleMania to honour his good friend Eddy Guerrero’s memory (though the match itself was cut for time and Rey actually got some boo’s for his win). Rey’s best matches in WWE would probably have been his battles with fellow “Smackdown Six” members Kurt Angle and Chris Benoit in 2002, as well as a stirring series with Chris Jericho in 2009 and a tremendous feud with CM Punk in 2010 (from an in-ring perspective at least).
I’ve barely even mentioned Rey’s career down in Mexico either here because I don’t really watch a lot of Lucha, but he was a prodigy from his early days as The Hummingbird and he was already highly rated by the time ECW took a chance on him in 1995. The amazing thing about Rey Jr is that even if you just look at his career in the United States for ECW, WCW and WWE you’d still have an incredible back catalogue of work to draw from. Rey Jr has been regularly booked poorly in every American company outside of ECW that he’s worked for, and despite that he’s been able to sustain a certain level of popularity due to how good he is as a worker.
Davey Boy Smith
The Match: Vs Bret Hart, WWF SummerSlam (29th August 1992)
The inclusion of Davey Boy here might be something that most of the non-British readers won’t agree with, but as a British fan of Pro Wrestling I don’t think anyone is ever really going to reach him when it comes to success in America. Even the likes of Drew Galloway have yet to truly eclipse Davey Boy Smith when it comes to being a comparable British star and icon. Galloway has been a multiple time WWE Champ as well, but Davey Boy benefits from being a part of the WWF during two of its boom periods and he’ll always have SummerSlam 92 at Wembley Stadium to fall back on.
If they had actually let Drew have his moment at a SummerSlam as well instead of a glorified House Show in Cardiff then maybe he could reach that level, but WWE is just far colder as a company these days and the days of boom periods are long gone, so Drew might always find himself living in Davey Boy’s shadow. Oddly I actually like Davey Boy more than I like Dynamite Kid as well, even though Dynamite is the better wrestler of the two by a country mile. It’s not like Davey was an especially better human being that Dynamite either as they both famously had their issues in their personal lives, but there’s just something likable about Davey that Dynamite doesn’t have. Maybe it’s the big cheesy grin that Davey had, but he’s just more likable to me, and that’s why he makes the list and Dynamite doesn’t, even though Dynamite is one of the most influential and talented in-ring performers ever.
Davey and Dynamite are inextricably linked due to it being their pairing as The British Bulldogs that fired them into stardom in America. Dynamite had been a star in Japan prior to that, whilst Davey had wrestled in the UK and had gained a reputation for being an up and coming prodigy whilst fighting under the name “Young David”. However, once the two tagged up they became such a well-oiled machine that even the WWF decided to roll the dice of them, even though neither was especially tall by WWF standards. They were both roided to the gills of course, which ultimately ended up causing them both issues in later life due to them piling far too much muscle onto their frames beyond what their bodies could handle. However, without getting juiced up they might not have got their WWF run, so they probably saw it a sacrifice they needed to make.
The British Bulldogs didn’t really have that long of a run as a team in the WWF in the grand scheme of things, although if you added their time in Japan onto that then they’d been tagging for a while. However, Davey ended up coming back to the WWF in the 90’s and actually got pretty darn over as a singles act across two runs in the company. The highlight of the first run was clearly the match with Bret Hart at SummerSlam 92, but Davey also had a really good feud with The Warlord that led to some surprisingly great power matches between the two. Their match at WrestleMania VII is a bit of a forgotten gem, with Davey’s ability to suplex and slam the massive Warlord getting him over with the crowds and helping make the matches so entertaining.
Bulldog ended up leaving the WWF for a bit and went to WCW, where he mostly feuded with Vader and had some good matches before flaming out and returning to the WWF in 1994. Bulldog’s second run with the WWF really started getting going when he turned Heel in 1995, although that Heel turn did initially lead to a horrible feud with Kevin Nash. However, once that was in the rear mirror Davey not only had another classic bout with Bret Hart on pay per view but he also had an entertaining series with Shawn Michaels before settling into a tag team with Owen Hart. Owen and Davey were entertaining not just in the ring but as a double act in promos and angles, with life seemingly being one big practical joke that they were inflicting on everyone else. They had some really fun matches and Davey hit the peak of his second run when he was chosen to be the first European Champion, defeating Owen in a classic battle in Germany to win the belt.
Sadly the final 3 years or so of Davey’s career were pretty wretched, with him suffering from a spate of injury issues and personal demons. However, during his peak as a singles act Davey was legitimately one of the top stars in the company, and over here in Europe he pretty much was THE top draw, with the likes of Bret Hart and The Undertaker also being in the vicinity of his stardom. Davey Boy is the measuring stick that you have to put up against any British star in WWE. Drew Galloway has done great work and really should be on Davey’s level, and if WWE was ran and booked better than he might be, but Davey’s natural likability is going to be hard to overcome.
The Match: Vs Rick Rude, WCW Beach Blast (20th June 1992)
You can tell you like a wrestler when you have to really think which of their many great matches is actually the one you would recommend for a feature like this. The truth is that I could list numerous great matches that Ricky Steamboat was in because he’s genuinely one of the best in-ring performers of his era. Heck, even when he came back in 2009 for a couple of matches with Chris Jericho he was still pretty darn good, and that was following a 15 year absence from the ring! To be honest it is mostly match quality as the reason that Steamboat makes this list, as he wasn’t exactly the most charismatic dude ever when it came to things like promos. Most of the best segments and angles Steamboat was involved in often included him being opposite one of the all-time greats such as Ric Flair, Randy Savage or Jake Roberts, with them usually carrying the load on that front.
However, once the match got in the ring you could almost always count on Steamboat delivering. And it’s not like Steamboat didn’t do his part in angles such as Ric Flair getting stripped of his clothes, Jake getting the DDT on the concrete or Randy Savage dropping a ring bell across the throat. Part of the reason we remember those moments isn’t just because they all led to great matches but because Steamboat was a likable babyface character who you wanted to see prevail. He didn’t really need to cut the best promo in the world because he was opposing guys who could cut great promos in their sleep. No, what Steamboat brought was natural likability and un-real in-ring proficiency, the likes that very few can or ever will match.
Steamboat often gets criticised for being a career babyface, with the suggestion being that he wasn’t multi-faceted enough to pull off a Heel run. However, if someone is as good a babyface as Steamboat was, and you had a host of tremendous Heels to put him up against, why would he even need to be a Heel? Whether he was going after Ric Flair for the World Title, going for revenge on Dun Muraco or fighting back against The Dangerous Alliance, Ricky Steamboat always had great villains to oppose him, so he just needed to be a good babyface, and few babyfaces were better than Ricky Steamboat.
Steamboat’s inert ability to sell is genuinely awe-inspiring sometimes, especially as it’s something that is kind of lacking in the modern game. Steamboat’s ability to sell that he was in jeopardy, whilst still showing that he was alive in the match and capable of making a comeback, played a big part in him becoming one of the best in-ring performers of his era. Whether it was a quick chop or a failed attempt to fight out of a hold, Steamboat was tremendous at selling whilst also giving the crowd hope. There are so many great matches that Steamboat has been a part of, but for me I’ve gone with his 30 Minute Iron Man match with Rick Rude, as I think it’s possibly the best example of that type of match and not only includes great wrestling but also some fun character interactions as well.
That being said, you could easily list about 10 matches with Ric Flair that are worth watching, not to mention matches with the likes of Don Muraco, Randy Savage, Lex Luger, Steve Austin, William Regal and Tully Blanchard. Steamboat might have amongst the highest collection of great matches that you’ll find in the wrestling world, and if I ever come across a show or compilation tape that involves a Steamboat match I’m usually always excited because it’s usually going to lead to a great bit of wrestling, even if Steamboat’s opponent isn’t especially good. Ricky Steamboat is someone who’s wrestling I just enjoy watching, and I’m sure I’m not alone on that front.
The Match: Vs Sting, WCW SuperBrawl III (21st February 1993)
I’ve mentioned a couple of big battlers in this list already, with both John Tenta and Bam Bam Bigelow getting their moment in the sun. When it comes to agile big men though Vader is near the top of the list, not only when it comes to match quality but also star power. Whether it was in Japan, America or Europe, Vader was always one of the highlights of any card he performed on when he was in his pomp as a worker. His combination of speed, power, agility and violence made him someone that almost always got over wherever he went. He even got over in the WWF to a certain degree before a combination of injuries, poor lifestyle choices and bad booking led to him becoming a mid-card also-ran who was doing jobs for the likes of Bradshaw on pay per views, and this was before Bradshaw was getting pushed as a Main Event guy.
When he was booked and featured properly though then Vader was a huge star, tearing it up in Japan before getting a gig over in America for WCW. WCW didn’t really know what they had with Vader at first and he was mostly booked as a mid-card brawler who would pop in now and then but he was never really pushed strongly outside of getting the odd squash win. The highlights of Vader’s early WCW run was killing Tom Zenk on pay per view and having a fun brawl with Stan Hansen that ended in a lame non-finish. However, once WCW paired Vader with Harley Race and had him go after WCW Champ Sting they finally found a formula that worked, with Vader squishing The Stinger at Great American Bash 1992 to win the WCW Title.
It was against Sting that Vader had some of his most famous matches in WCW, with the two of them having a great pay per view rematch at Starrcade 1992 before beating the stuffing out of one another in an exemplary strap match at SuperBrawl III. It wasn’t just Sting that Vader had good or great matches with though, as he dropped the WCW Title to Ron Simmons in a memorable match and also had enjoyable matches with the likes of Ray Traylor, Dustin Rhodes and even Jim Duggan on a pay per view in 1994. Sadly problems first really started emerging for Vader when he was programmed against Hulk Hogan in 1995, with Hogan being at his most insufferable and popping back up after taking Vader’s, up to that point, devastating powerbomb finisher.
Vader had lost in WCW prior to the Hogan feud, against the likes of Simmons, Sting and Flair most notably (with the Flair match in particular being an excellent outing) but often those matches had ended with the opponent catching Vader with something and Vader often took large chunks of offence in the matches, so even though Vader lost in the end he was suitably protected and never lost any lustre as a result. Against Hogan though he was booked as an incompetent buffoon sometimes, such as when they met in a cage and Hogan not only clobbered Vader but also stopped to mock him by wearing his entrance gear in a comedy spot.
The feud with Hogan turned Vader from a scary Monster Heel into just another big dude that Hogan had dispatched, and after getting battered for real by Paul Orndorff backstage Vader was fired and jumped to the WWF. Initially the WWF did a good job protecting Vader, giving him wins over the likes of Jake Roberts, Razor Ramon, Yokozuna and even Shawn Michaels in a tag team situation. However, the matches with Shawn for the Title, though good, caused Vader to lose momentum and following an injury near the end of the 1996 he was moved down to the mid-card and the tag ranks.
Despite this, Vader did still have some good matches for the WWF, with pay per view offerings against Ken Shamrock and Undertaker on In Your House events delivering in particular. However, by the middle of 1998 Vader was doing jobs for the likes of Mark Henry and the writing was on the wall, leading to Vader leaving for All Japan. Moving back to Japan rejuvenated Vader as a star and he was soon having big matches with the likes of Mistuharu Misawa and Kenta Kobashi. Vader had notably slowed down a touch, something which was exacerbated when Vader continued to put on size. The combination of age, years of injuries and weight gain ended up making Vader somewhat difficult to watch after a certain point, even though he was still over based on reputation in Japan and he could still have a good match in the right situation.
Despite his in-ring career fizzling out in disappointing fashion, at his peak Vader was genuinely one of the very best wrestlers in the entire world. I still enjoy going back to watch his matches and I find I appreciate him more now than I even did at the time. In his peak years Vader was an ultra-believable monster who could move in a way that shouldn’t have been possible for a guy his size. Though he went off the boil in his later career, Vader could GO in his younger days and he was a dynamic performer. When he was called upon to bump and sell Vader was good at that also and really was a complete performer. Vader from 1992-1994 in particular was fantastic, and he was a big hit at the box office too, especially in Japan where he did incredible business with the likes of Nobuhiko Takada.
The Match: Vs Mike Awesome, ECW Heat Wave (2nd August 1998)
It’s amazing to me that Masato Tanka has not only been wrestling for so long but he also seems to have very little in the way of adverse effects from decades of destroying his body. This is the same Masato Tanaka who would get flung through tables, wrestle in explosive death matches and take sickening unprotected chair shots to the head on a regular basis. Despite all of that Tanaka not only still wrestles today but can also still have a good match as well, which utterly baffles me. It just shows that some extraordinary people will be an exception to the rules that govern the rest of us. I think I’d have lifelong issues if I took just one of the chair shots Tanaka took in his career, so heaven knows how his body is still holding up all these years later.
It would be wrong to just think of Tanaka as a guy who absorbed horrific punishment though, as when he was at his peak he was one of the best in-ring talents on the entire planet. Tanaka’s exciting offence, incredible bumping and tremendous selling meant he could be entertaining in any setting, not just hardcore wars. He quickly got over in ECW following some brutal bouts with Mike Awesome that saw him take some unreal punishment, but he could also deliver top matches with the likes of Balls Mahoney, The Dudley Boyz and Bam Bam Bigelow. Paul Heyman did an excellent job when it came to presenting Tanaka as a star, and he was over with the ECW crowd to an extent that I don’t think any other Japanese wrestler aside from maybe Yoshihiro Tajiri ever came close to reaching, and that includes the likes of Great Sasuke.
Tanaka wrestled for a host of Japanese companies, including the likes of FMW and Zero 1, and he also did some matches in New Japan as well, wrestling Yuji Nagata in an absolute corker at the Tokyo Dome. He recently was plying his trade in NOAH as well, and it was really nice to see that he was still going and seems to still be in pretty decent shape. One of my fondest memories of Tanaka is when I first saw him bust out the Diamond Dust. My friend and I rewound that and watched it a couple of times because it looked so cool. I still think it’s one of the coolest finishers you’ll find. Tanaka could bust out exciting offence and take unreal punishment, but at his heart he was a really good worker who could time his comebacks and sell with aplomb. I think it doesn’t get said enough just how good a worker he actually was and is. He’s not just a bump machine, he can wrestle.