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 40 selections if you feel like doing so.
The Match: Vs Big Van Vader, New Japan Pro Wrestling (10th August 1991)
When you’re talking longevity in Professional Wrestling, the name Keiji Muto has to be mentioned, as Muto began his career in the 1980’s and was still going and winning major Titles all the way into the 2020’s, with him only recently announcing the countdown to the end of his illustrious in-ring career. During that time Muto adapted both his appearance and his in-ring style in order to increase the length of his career. When his hair started to thin and his legs required heavy protective bracing, he went with a new bald look and switched to long tights. When his continued knee problems meant the high-flying style he had previously been known for could no longer be sustained, he switched to a more grounded mat based style and changed his finishing move from the Moonsault to a running knee to the face, known as the Shining Wizard.
What is so impressive about Muto to me is that he weathered the changes and adapted in such a manner that he was able to have possibly the best year of his career in 2001, as he tore the house down in matches with the likes of Yuji Nagata, Genichiro Tenryu, Steve Williams and Tatsumi Fujinami on route to being arguably the best wrestler of the entire year (some will vehemently argue that it was Steve Austin, but I don’t think you can lose with either). Muto’s versatility and adaptability were what allowed him to go on that career renaissance, and he was still having good matches in his own indomitable manner way into the latter days of his career, with NOAH even giving him the GHC Heavyweight Title at one stage. Granted Muto had gone from regular ****+ performances in big match settings to the more comparably modest *** range most of the time, but that was still nothing to be sniffed at when considering his age and litany of injuries.
I first became aware of Muto during his time in WCW as The Great Muta, which is something I assume quite a lot of westerners would share. Muto really was a breath of fresh air when he showed up in WCW, with his exciting moves and cool painted-faced look making him an instant sensation, especially when he would bust out his trademark Moonsault finishing move. It was only natural that the evil face-painted Muto would take on the beloved babyface face-painted Sting, and the two had excellent chemistry together in the ring, leading to a series of hot matches both in America and Japan. Muto did get further up the card following the Sting feud and even got to Main Event a pay per view at Halloween Havoc 89 when he tagged with Terry Funk against Sting and Ric Flair.
However, Muto eventually found himself out in the cold in WCW, as he got resoundingly showed up at Starrcade 89 by being handed the wooden spoon in a 4 wrestler round robin tournament, and then dropped his World TV Title to Arn Anderson soon after. There had supposedly been plans at one stage to turn the exciting Muto into a babyface, but manager Gary Hart had talked him out of it. It’s a shame as a babyface Great Muta in 89/90 might have been a very interesting prospect. Instead Muto’s WCW run fizzled and he headed back to Japan with his status raised due to the previous success he had enjoyed. Back as part of the New Japan Pro Wrestling roster, Muto took part in the first ever G1 Climax in 1991.
The first G1 was designed as a way to elevate the likes of Muto, Masahiro Chono and Shinya Hashimoto, and it succeeded on that front with Muto getting a big win over Vader before advancing to the Final for a classic bout with Chono that elevated both men to super stardom. As good as the Chono match is, I’d strongly suggest checking out the match with Vader, as it has some of the best crowd reactions I’ve ever seen, with a molten Sumo Hall crowd going nuts whenever it looks like Muto might pick up the win. Vader not only does the job for Muto but he also endorses him following the bout as well, and the crowd is HOSS for Muto when it’s all over as a result. Strangely New Japan didn’t bother officially recording this one, but thankfully there is fan-cam footage of it out in cyberspace and the match is very enjoyable in that format.
Muto was juiced in as a big star in Japan and would also retain his overness whenever he would come over to the USA as well, although by the time WCW was in the doldrums in the 2000’s even Muto struggled to generate much heat anymore, especially as this was before his switch up in appearance and style. Muto continued to have great matches throughout the 90’s, as well as entertaining spectacles against the likes of Hulk Hogan and Antonio Inoki whilst in his Great Muta guise. Muto’s two battles with Shinya Hashimoto over the Spring/Summer of 1995 were high class wrestling action, and he followed that up by drawing two monster houses with Nobuhiko Takada (although he didn’t quite put the same effort into the second one as he did the first one, mostly because he was booked to lose the second one).
Muto went Heel in the second half of the 90’s in order to join New Japan’s version of WCW’s nWo faction, and he still had time for some good matches with the likes of Tenryu and Scott Norton, but really his career started to dwindle a bit, with the dark days being capped off by one last miserable run in WCW where he tagged with Vampiro and did jobs for Ernest Miller. However, once the head got shaved and the ring style got changed up in 2001 Muto fought his way back into the top echelon of the business, having classic matches with a host of opponents and winning the All Japan Triple Crown along the way. Muto would eventually jump to All Japan full-time, although his booking techniques didn’t really work over there. Muto remained one of the top stars in all of Japanese wrestling though and he got himself a run with the IWGP Heavyweight Title in the second half of the 00’s, which led to him putting over Hiroshi Tanahashi clean as a sheet in the Main Event at the Tokyo Dome in order to give Tanahashi that one last push towards ACE-dom.
Keiji Muto certainly had two very distinct periods of his career, and impressively both of those periods had excellent peaks in their own unique ways. Muto was certainly one of the very first Japanese wrestlers that I became a big fan of, with me even kind of enjoying that 2000 WCW run just because younger me thought he looked cool. You can argue that Muto perhaps held on a bit too long in regards to ending the in-ring portion of his career, but I also think his latter career work hardly disgraced or embarrassed him. One thing Keiji Muto has always seemed to have is an ability to pace a match so that it peaks at the right moments, and that ability has allowed him to still have watchable contests, especially when against the likes of Go Shiozaki. You can argue that winning another World Title was perhaps a bit above what he could deliver in the ring and he possibly should have remained in tags and the mid-card for the last couple of years, but he’s always seemed to retain his overness and his work was far better than it had any right to be when you consider both his age and the state of his body after years of wrecking his knees and back. I’ll always treasure that 2001 run though because I love technical wrestling and Muto was a technician’s technician that year.
The Match: Vs Brock Lesnar, WWE No Way Out (15th February 2004)
It’s very hard for me not to define the impact Eddy Guerrero had on me without focusing on his tragic death. Death of celebrities rarely cause me to be so emotional as to cry (my eyes were especially un-moist when the likes of Princess Diana and Michael Jackson passed on for instance) but I’ll be honest and say the Johnny Cash video package WWE made for Guerrero following his death left me blubbering away like a morose oversized baby. I can’t really explain why. Yes, any reasonable person who found themselves without a distinct lack of empathy would find it terribly sad that a father and husband was struck down so young. However, I have been to the funerals of friends and family members and managed to keep the “stiff upper lip” that we Brits are so supposedly proud of maintaining, and yet this man who I didn’t know had me fighting back tears like nobody’s business.
It’s both strange and thoroughly irrational, and yet there we are. Honestly I was down for a good while following Guerrero’s death, with it taking me some time to finally get over it. I look back on myself now with a mixture of bemusement and mild disgust, in the sense that I had no real “right” to mourn someone I didn’t know when his friends and family actually did have to deal with it (and in the case of someone like Chris Benoit, it reportedly hit them far harder, with far more serious an outcome). Regardless though, something about Eddy Guerrero beyond just his wrestling ability connected with me on a deeper level than perhaps he even intended, causing me to react in an emotional manner that was thoroughly excessive in relation to the actual loss I had personally suffered.
I had quickly gravitated to Guerrero as a performer when I first saw him working in WCW. I didn’t have satellite television in my house during the 90’s, meaning it was difficult for me to get my wrestling fix most of the time, but WCW started showing months old episodes of Worldwide on terrestrial station Channel 5 in the summer of 1999, which finally gave me a way to watch wrestling of some form in my house every week. Guerrero hadn’t yet jumped to the WWF and he had recently returned from injury, so I got a chance to watch him wrestle and I liked what I saw. Instantly it was clear to me that Guerrero had something about him. I possibly wasn’t yet at the stage where I knew what things like “work rate” meant, but I was smartened up enough to know that wrestling was a work and that Guerrero was good at it. How deep that understanding of Guerrero’s abilities went at that stage I can’t accurately say because it was so long ago, but I both liked him and thought his wrestling was good.
By the time Guerrero had jumped to the WWF; Channel 4 had got the rights to show Sunday Night HeAT, as well as some of the pay per view events, so I was thankfully still able to follow Guerrero’s career whenever he worked the weekend shows. I remember staying up late to see Backlash 2000 and getting a real kick out of Guerrero’s wrestling and character work when he took on Essa Rios in a somewhat underappreciated good match. Guerrero had entered the WWF as a bit of Latin American stereotype, but he was entertaining in the role, especially when paired up with Chyna. I’m not sure if the WWF was trying to crib notes on the relationship shared between Gomez and Morticia Addams with their portrayal of Eddy and Chyna, but the “Latino Heat” pairing was a lot of fun and the WWF could have probably milked it for a bit longer than they did. Eventually they split the couple up though and Guerrero went back to tagging with Chris Benoit, Dean Malenko and Perry Saturn.
As I became a more dedicated wrestling fan, a dedication that was combined with further access to the internet, I discovered Guerrero’s stints not just in ECW but also in New Japan where he had worked as the masked Black Tiger. I was already a fan of Guerrero, but watching his work from these companies, as well as catching up with the period of his WCW career that I had previously missed due to the lack of a satellite dish, just reiterated how great he truly was, especially as my further “smartening” up had given me a whole new way to appreciate his talents. Whether it was the classic bouts with Malenko in ECW, the top class wrestling in the New Japan Junior Heavyweight division with the likes of Benoit and Jushin Liger, or the tremendous matches in WCW with the likes of Rey Mysterio Jr, Guerrero was always someone who I looked forward to watching because he was truly excellent in-between the ropes.
Perhaps the only critique you could lay at Guerrero was his lack of a killer promo, but he worked at that more and more during his WCW days and his first WWF stint, and he eventually reached the point that by his second stint in WWE he was a very good promo on top of all the other aspects of wrestling that he was good at. WWE’s constant desire to play to stereotypes meant that Guerrero found himself in a tandem with nephew Chavo Guerrero Jr where the whole point was that they were thieving Latino’s who cheated to win. However, Eddy and Chavo Jr were both entertaining in the role and improbably the two became popular babyfaces, especially in the Latino community who liked the fact that they regularly won and showed up their opponents. WWE were smart and still had them live by the Lie, Cheat and Steal mantra following the Face turn, with the crowd cheering them on more and more regardless of how devious they got!
Guerrero had always been a smooth technician and a smart worker in the ring, but in the early 00’s he really put all of the pieces together to become the complete performer, and WWE decided to go all the way with him by having him win the WWE Title at No Way Out 2004. Guerrero lacked the height that WWE usually demanded from its top stars, but he was a versatile performer who could cut a promo and he had a, frankly ridiculous, heavily muscled physique, so he was able to overcome that and become a genuine Main Event level wrestler. Guerrero and his pals had been named “Vanilla Midgets” by certain folk during their WCW days, but there was certainly nothing vanilla about Guerrero when he won the WWE Title, as he had charisma for days and his work was exceptional, especially in the match where he won the Title against Brock Lesnar.
I went with the bout against Lesnar as the match selection here, both because it’s a great match and also a powerful emotional moment that still resonates to this day, but there are plenty of other top matches from Guerrero that are worth seeking out, such as his Best of the Super Junior semi-final with Benoit in 1996, his match with Rey Jr at WCW Halloween Havoc 97, his series with Rob Van Dam in 2002, another great match with Benoit from Armageddon 2002, a WrestleMania classic with Kurt Angle in 2004 and another good intense fight with Rey Jr at Judgment Day 2005. And that’s before we get into his work from Mexico, ECW and a host of WCW television matches, especially from the early Nitro days where you would see Guerrero getting in there to rock it with the likes of Benoit, DDP and Ric Flair.
Eddy Guerrero was, in my opinion, one of the very best to ever do this. His combination of wrestling ability, charisma and general star power could not be denied, and his influence is still being felt in the industry thanks to the likes of Sasha Banks idolising him and using him as an inspiration for their own careers. Guerrero is someone who whenever I go back to watch a show and realise he was in that particular company at that time I always check to see whether he was wrestling because I know it will often be worth watching. Whether it was as a tag partner for Art Barr in Mexico, winning over the cynical ECW audience, wrestling under a mask in Japan and tearing it up, in WCW as both a fan friendly babyface or a sneering Rudo, in the WWF/E during the many stages of his career there, or even just on the indie scene between WWE stints in 01/02, Eddy Guerrero was always someone whose work shone the brightest.
The Match: Vs Toshiaki Kawada, All Japan Pro Wrestling (4th June 1994)
I’m trying to think what my first real exposure to Mitsuharu Misawa was. I’m thinking it was probably when the, now departed, Wrestling Channel over here in the UK started showing Pro Wrestling NOAH in 03/04. I’m not sure how much of an impression Misawa really made on me at the time, at least until I saw his classic bout with Kenta Kobashi in the March of 2003. I did enjoy the NOAH product though and after doing some digging on the internet I learned of the history of All Japan Pro Wrestling, where Misawa had been one of the company’s biggest stars. Suitably interested, I picked up a 4/5 disc All Japan compilation and started working my way through it. The first match on the comp was Misawa taking on Toshiaki Kawada in June of 1994, followed by Misawa’s match with Jumbo Tsuruta from June 1990. I think after watching that it would be near impossible not to be a Misawa fan, because both of those matches are fantastic in their own way.
The Kawada match remains one of the greatest bouts of all-time, with two tremendous workers telling an engrossing and hard-hitting story that has the crowd going nuts. The match with Jumbo isn’t quite as good a match by comparison, but you could argue that it is just as historically significant. As the story goes, Misawa was originally slated to lose the match to Jumbo, as younger guys losing to the more experienced stars until it’s “their time” to win was, and remains, a regular booking trope over in Japan. Booker Giant Baba originally assumed it wasn’t Misawa’s time as he’d only just started going by his real name after years of being Tiger Mask II. However, when Baba got to the venue he heard the fans chanting for Misawa long before the show started and he decided to call an audible and switch the finish. That one simple booking decision changed the course not just of Misawa’s career but possibly the entire All Japan promotion.
Because it turned out it really was Misawa’s time after all, certainly in the fans’ minds at least, as they erupted when Misawa picked up the win and chanted his name long into the night. The big victory gave All Japan a big shot in the arm, especially as they’d recently lost one of their biggest names in Genichiro Tenryu, and it led to the company enjoying many a sell out at their premier Budokan Hall arena. I was sorely tempted to make the Jumbo bout the match selected for this article, because I really do love it and the crowd reactions are something else, but I think the Kawada match defined an era for an entire generation of Puro fans and it remains an entry point for a lot of people when it comes to getting into the All Japan style, which can be kind of impervious sometimes if you’ve only ever grown up on an diet of American styled wrestling.
Misawa had many traits that made him a great wrestler, especially in his younger days before injuries started taking their toll. He was technically sound of course (most Japanese wrestlers are because they have it drilled into them in the torturous learning process they have to go through in order to graduate the brutal dojos they train in) but he was also a delightful high-flyer when the opportunity arose, as well as a hard striker and a fantastic storyteller within the ropes. What’s amazing about it all as well is that Misawa was able to draw such sympathy from crowds when he was known for mostly being surly and inexpressive, something that differentiated him from long-time partner and opponent Kenta Kobashi, who was a far more expressive worker, especially when it came to facials and selling.
Misawa instead would opt for an almost quiet dignity over Kobashi’s exuberance, and such a technique worked well for him. The fact he wasn’t Kobashi and Kobashi wasn’t him was a good thing, as it made them complement one another both as partners and rivals. Toshiaki Kawada may have been the glue that held the All Japan Main Event scene together due to his penchant for dishing out abuse making him the perfect foil both for the dignified and surly Misawa as much as the fiery Kobashi, but it was Misawa and Kobashi who brought the sizzle to go along with the steak, especially when it came to Misawa coming off the top rope with moves like Frog Splashes and flying elbow smashes. To list all of Misawa’s best matches would take forever, as he not only had some classics under his own name both in All Japan and NOAH, but he also had a highly respectable run as the second Tiger Mask as well.
Misawa’s Tiger Mask run was hampered somewhat by All Japan not really doing that many clean finishes in the big matches during that era, meaning that Tiger Mask would often find himself fighting to DQ’s and Count Outs, which hampered the enjoyment that could be gleaned from his matches somewhat. By the time Misawa was wrestling under his own name though All Japan had switched to mostly clean finishes in its big matches in order to compete with what the UWF was doing in their big matches, meaning that Misawa’s big battles from that era usually ended with someone decisively getting their hand raised, which complemented the quality of the bouts themselves no end. It’s telling that Misawa did a lot of clean jobs in his career, possibly more than many other stars of comparable stature over in America or Mexico during the same time-frame, but because everyone in All Japan did clean jobs it didn’t hurt Misawa’s popularity, and in some cases it even enhanced it because the Japanese love a gallant loser who goes out on their shield.
Misawa had multiple reigns with both All Japan’s Triple Crown and NOAH’s GHC Heavyweight Titles, although by the time 2007 rolled around it was probably past the point that he really should have been holding it and eventually he dropped it to Takeshi Morishima in what should have been a big passing of the torch moment, but it just didn’t work out like that. Being NOAH’s founder put pressure on Misawa and he wrestled long past the point that he should have done, with his body getting more and more thrashed with every month, even with a move into more tag matches. Sadly this would lead to a tragic end for Misawa, as he took a bump he’d likely taken many times before when Akitoshi Saito gave him a back drop, but Misawa’s body had reached the point where it just couldn’t handle the impact anymore and it led to his premature death.
Misawa’s death is a warning sign to any wrestler to know when to walk away before your body makes the final decision for you, but his career peak was one of the very highest of all-time. The quality of Misawa’s work, his ability to draw at the box office, and his legacy of bringing more eyeballs to both the All Japan and NOAH products can never be taken away. I know many westerners who first got into All Japan or NOAH thanks to Misawa and his incredible matches from the 90’s. There was a period in wrestling where Misawa was having multiple match of the year candidates per year, with him more than holding his own against the likes of Shawn Michaels, Bret Hart or Ric Flair in the match quality stakes, albeit in a different more niche style to what those three were doing (to a western sensibility at least).
Misawa’s work still very much holds up, although he paid a heavy price for it when all was said and done. It is possible though to see Misawa as a cautionary tale whilst also celebrating just how good he was. Misawa was a master craftsman who delighted millions, and probably drew millions in the process. Wherever you go in Japan, be it Budokan Hall, the Tokyo Dome, the Differ Ariake or other even smaller venues, there’s a good chance Mitsuharu Misawa probably wrestled in an all-time great match there. He’s a legendary figure for good reason, and he had a darn catchy entrance tune for good measure. Has anyone got some green and white streamers I can borrow?
The Match: Vs Ric Flair, WWF WrestleMania VIII (5th April 1992)
I’m from the generation of wrestling fans that missed Randy Savage’s peak by quite a distance, as he was tagging with Sid in WCW when I first started following the product, which I think we can all agree were not his best days. However, even though Savage was overly muscular and physically knackered by that point, he still had an undeniable presence and star quality that couldn’t be denied. It was only when I started going back to watch classic WWF and WCW tapes that I realised that this really cool personality had actually been a darn fantastic wrestler at one stage as well. Savage stood out massively in the 80’s WWF due to the fact that, for his era, he wrestled a fast thrilling style and he combined that in-ring ability with fantastic character work and charisma.
Randy Savage is probably one of the most visually arresting wrestlers of all-time, with his wardrobe changing over the years but his look always remaining quintessentially Randy Savage. Be it his grand entrance attires from the 80’s to his sequined full body attire of the early 90’s all the way up to his snazzy black and white threads from his days in the nWo, Randy Savage made sure that you had no choice but to pay attention to him every time he was in front of the camera. His distinctive constantly imitated voice made his promos memorable for generations of wrestling fans whether they first saw him working for his father’s company in Memphis all the way up to stints in companies like TNA in the early 00’s. Heck, I know people who have never watched a wrestling show in their life who can still quote his lines from the Spider-Man movie in that instantly recognisable gravelly voice. The reaction to his death just highlighted how much of a cultural touchstone the “Macho Man” was to so many people of so many different ages.
Savage’s ability to marry the showmanship and workmanship elements of wrestling together puts him in the upper echelon of great performers, both inside the ring and outside of it. Though his style and look changed and evolved over the years, the era most wrestling fans likely think of first when it comes to Savage would be his time in the WWF from the mid-80’s to the early-90’s, a period that regularly saw him accompanied to the ring by his manager (and real life wife at the time) Miss. Elizabeth. Savage and Liz did spent some time apart in 1989-1991 when Savage chucked her in place of the terrifying Sensational Sherri, but for the majority of this time-frame the two were indelibly linked together. Whether Savage was the hyper-paranoid jealous boyfriend (something which he apparently was in real life a lot of the time) who would attack weak-minded infatuated characters like George Steele or the fired up loyal partner who would fight folks like the lecherous Ric Flair for the honour of his woman, Savage and Liz were a magic pairing.
Though the WWF initially tried to make Liz a scheming evil-doer when she first arrived in order to match the alignment of her Macho charge, the company soon decided instead to make her a seemingly nice elegant lady who just happened to be with an absolute nutter who she still loved for unexplored reasons. It was a masterstroke as it not only made Savage even more of a Heel for treating such a lovely character so poorly, but it also left the door open for Savage to go babyface at any time. Whether it be all the times he brutally attacked or humiliated poor George Steele, dropped the ring bell on Ricky Steamboat’s throat or insulted the legend that was Bruno Sammartino, the moment Savage was prepared to come to Elizabeth’s aid he would be forgiven and a massive babyface due to fans loving her so much. It was absolute genius and gave Savage an easy way to switch alignments whenever the need arose.
Savage had a host of great matches in the 80’s as a Heel, taking on the likes of Tito Santana, Hulk Hogan, Bruno and, of course, Steamboat. The matches with Steele weren’t especially good, but they often had solid crowd heat and Savage probably benefited from not having to wrestle 20 minute classics on every House Show loop. The feuds with Steamboat and Hogan are possibly the two best known ones of Savage’s initial Heel run in the WWF, with the former getting a big pay per view blow off at WrestleMania III whilst the latter did impressive House Show business, especially as it gave Hogan a dynamic and exciting opponent that wasn’t just another big monster that he had to slay. Savage drew monster heat by attacking Steamboat’s throat with the ring bell on television, and the Mania III match remains one of the most iconic WrestleMania Moments™, especially as it also paid off the Steele feud as well by having him at ringside to finally get his revenge and help Steamboat win.
Savage and Steamboat were the perfect foils for one another, with Savage’s nefarious fast-paced style matching up well with Steamboat’s more technical babyface style, although Steamboat could also get down and dirty when pushed too far, which gave the feud an exciting dynamic. Savage was a great opponent for Hogan too, as he could hang with Hogan both on the mic and in the charisma stakes, and he could also take big impressive looking bumps for the bigger Hogan whilst still being big enough to believably get heat on him. Eventually the WWF decided to try Savage on the babyface side in 1987, as Elizabeth had her honour insulted by Honky Tonk Man and The Hart Foundation, leading to Savage actually standing up for her and getting cheered in the process. The DQ finish of Savage’s match with Honky led to Hulk Hogan getting involved to assist Savage, leading to a lucrative long term storyline between the two where they would be allied for over a year before Savage’s jealously and paranoia would see the team combust.
It was during the big Hogan feud that Savage kicked poor Liz to the curb at WrestleMania V and brought in Sherri. The two were an entertaining pair as Sherri’s whole act was that she was likely just as nuts as Savage was, making them a dangerous duo that the babyfaces of the WWF needed to be weary of. Savage became the King of Wrestling during his association with Sherri, but he didn’t really get near the WWF Title again outside of the occasional shot against babyface Champs Hogan and Ultimate Warrior, instead feuding in the mid-card with the likes of Jim Duggan and Dusty Rhodes. Savage was still entertaining but I always felt like the King gimmick didn’t really suit him and he gradually felt like he was getting less over in the feuds he was having with guys like Rhodes. However, when Savage cost Warrior the WWF Title against Sgt Slaughter at Royal Rumble 1991 it kicked their feud into overdrive and led to a classic bout at WrestleMania VII.
Warrior and Savage were supposedly tight outside of the ring and that was kind of reflected in their matches, as they both worked super hard when matched up against one another and also seemed to trust one another. Warrior sold a bunch for Savage and always treated him like an equal, whilst Savage took comparatively huge bumps for Warrior and even allowed Warrior to kick out of a bunch of his signature Elbow Drops in their climactic Mania battle before having Warrior systematically break him down and destroy him for three. There wasn’t a shred of doubt following the Mania VII match that Warrior was the better man, and that only added to the greatness of the match as it was a definitive satisfying clean finish that saw the Heel Savage get his full comeuppance for his evil deeds, especially as the loss meant the now former King was supposed to retire.
In reality Savage wanted some time-off as well as an opportunity to get off steroids in order to try for a baby, so losing to Warrior was a good way to justify taking him off the road. By the end of the year though Savage was back in an active role to feud with Jake Roberts, in a feud that contained some fantastic angles and promos but very little in the ring as they were rarely given much time to work with. Once that feud was over, Savage moved into one with WWF Champ Ric Flair over Flair making accusations that Liz was with him before she got with the Macho Man, complete with doctored photos in order to really agitate Savage’s onions. This led to some more fantastic promos from both men and thankfully they were given some actual time at WrestleMania VIII in order to have a great match, which they dutifully did, with Flair even getting some colour and then getting chewed out by Vince McMahon as a result!
I went with the Flair bout for my match selection, but Savage had many classic bouts so narrowing it down was difficult and there are many choices to be had. Savage does an excellent job as the fired up babyface looking for vengeance for his woman, whilst Flair bumps all over the shop and is a fantastic bad guy that you want to see get clobbered. Curt Hennig even does a great job outside the ring as Flair’s manager, with Elizabeth even making an appearance at one stage amongst a swarm of referees and road agents. I could sit here and list numerous great matches that Savage had though, as even post-WWF/E he went on to have some very creditable outings in WCW, including a couple of top class pay per view outings with Diamond Dallas Page as well as some more fun clashes with Flair.
Randy Savage became so physically broken down after years of dropping elbows off the top (as well as pumping himself full of whatever he needed to in order to maintain an outrageous physique for someone his age and size) that his WCW run from 1994 onwards became quite painful to watch once 1999 rolled around, especially as the poor bugger had to lug around wrestling’s biggest piece of luggage with him as a tag team partner. Savage did at least get one more fleeting taste of World Title glory though as he defeated Kevin Nash in July 1999, only to then drop the belt back to old foe Hulk Hogan the following day. Savage had a brief feud with Dennis Rodman following that and was pretty much done as a regular character on the show, only turning up now and then, such as when he randomly wandered out on an episode of Thunder in the Spring of 2000 to compete in a battle royal totally unadvertised.
Savage could still go in the right setting up to 1998, but once his injuries got too severe he was never the same again, especially as he trained his body for show instead of go when he returned in 1999. The Dallas Page feud was almost certainly the highlight of Savage’s latter mainstream career, as he put Page over in the middle of the ring on a pay per view event in April 1997 and also allowed Page to get the better of him on more than one occasion in angles, including a memorable moment when Page disguised himself as masked luchador La Parka before striking with his famed Diamond Cutter finishing move.
However, from 1994 onwards Savage was never really quite the same in the ring, with his matches often boiling down to him selling a bunch before snapping off his Elbow Drop for the flash pin. Considering Savage had been legitimately one of the very best on the entire planet at his 80’s peak, it was a shame to see his body worn down as a direct result of being that good. However, Savage always managed to maintain the star power that made him Randy Savage, even if he needed chemical assistance to attain it after a certain point. Savage at his peak remains both one of wrestling’s best showmen along with being one it’s best in-ring performers. His legacy lives on whenever CM Punk or Jay Lethal head up top for his signature Elbow Drop, and he will likely remain part of the fabric of popular culture for many years amongst Gen X and Gen Y wrestling fans who were able to see him. Whether his popularity endures with Gen Z and onward remains to be seen, but amongst people of a certain age Randy Savage’s name will always illicit a knowing response, be it for his wrestling or for his iconic delivery of the line of “Bonesaw is ready!”
The Match: Vs Vader, WCW Starrcade (27th December 1993)
This one is a controversial choice, owing to the recent scandals attached to Flair from the infamous Plain Ride From Hell amongst other things. It also didn’t help that Flair’s “final match” at the age of 73 in 2022 was an absolute disaster where Flair was so bushed by the end that he could barely apply his signature Figure Four Leg Lock in order to pick up the victory. I’m fully aware that some will be unhappy to see Flair’s name mentioned here, and it does perhaps raise the question as to whether there are limits to the old adage of separating the art from the artist. However, when it came to making this list I couldn’t escape from the reality that Ric Flair is one of the most entertaining wrestlers I’ve ever seen perform, both inside the ring and outside of it, and were I not to include him here the list would be somewhat inauthentic.
Thus Flair remains, although I felt it proper to address the elephant(s) in the room first (and there is probably far more that could be addressed considering how long Flair has been part of this business). As previously mentioned, I didn’t get to see a lot of WCW until Worldwide made its way to Channel 5 here in the UK in 1999, but even prior to that I knew who Ric Flair was. You couldn’t buy one of the non-company specific wrestling magazines without seeing mention of Flair. Even in the late 90’s when the likes of Stone Cold, The Rock and Goldberg were becoming the faces of the industry, Flair remained a constant due to his irrepressible ability to entertain. Even when WCW decided to do a storyline where Flair went nuts and got committed to an asylum, he still almost managed to make it fun due to being such a force of nature (pardon the pun).
Indeed, most of Flair’s time in WCW during the second half of the 90’s was one of WCW constantly misusing The Nature Boy by putting him in situations that made him look bad, along with ensuring that he was always roundly beaten and humiliated whenever the company took a stroll through the southern regions of America where Flair was most popular. WCW’s bizarre and vindictive booking of Flair in places like North Carolina had made him a sympathetic figure amongst a large chunk of internet wrestling fandom, who saw the spiteful presentation of Flair for what it was, his rivals trying to make him look bad because they had the power to do so. It was really no surprise that Flair was happy when WCW finally bit the dust in 2001 as the prior 2-3 years had been pretty miserable for him, even though he’d still managed to be a part of some good matches and angles in that time.
If Flair outright wasn’t the wrestler that ruled the 80’s then he certainly had to be in contention alongside Hulk Hogan, as both men had been at the forefront of their respective organisations and had been highly successful at the box office at varying points. Flair was always seen as the better wrestler to the more hardcore element of the wrestling fan base due to his ability to work longer more technically proficient bouts whilst Hogan usually worked shorter more explosive ones due to having lesser technical acumen. Both wrestlers had a “formula” they would like to work, with Flair usually being the Heel Champion that would spend 5, 10, 15 and sometimes even 20 minutes taking a resounding thrashing from his challenger before cutting them off for a bit and then building to a disputed finish of some kind that would allow further rematches. By comparison, Hogan would usually get a prolonged babyface shine, sell for a bit and then make the big heroic comeback before defeating his opponent cleanly, usually in a span of 10-15 minutes total.
Both wrestlers’ approaches were effective for the audiences they were tailored to, with Flair being a touring Champion who would travel to different territories across America, Canada and the rest of the world to defend the belt against local stars, whilst Hogan would run through major cities every few months taking on the top guys within his own company. Both Flair and Hogan were adept at plugging challengers into their formula, with Flair being able to have great long Title matches against even average wrestlers so long as they followed his lead, whilst Hogan could work his match with any of the big monsters the WWF could bring in for him to battle and it would almost always entertain the crowd, even if the actual wrestling was a step below what Flair producing. As someone who leans slightly more towards Flair’s style of wrestling I generally preferred his efforts, but I also enjoy what Hogan could do and I appreciated that both wrestlers did things differently as it extenuated the positive differences just as much as any of the negative ones.
Strangely Flair himself never really rated his work as a babyface, and to be honest what most people think of when it comes to Flair was his time as Heel with the Four Horsemen stable alongside the likes of Arn Anderson and Tully Blanchard. However, Flair was actually a darn great babyface when he could be convinced to work as one, as his violent feuds with the likes of Harley Race, Terry Funk and Vader showed. Indeed I went with the Vader match as the selected bout for this feature due to how great a job Flair does as the underdog babyface against the much bigger and dangerous Vader. Scott Keith once described that particular match as like watching someone take on The Undertaker on WrestleMania 2000 for the N64 on the highest difficulty level, and anyone who has suffered through such an experience will know how accurate a description that is.
Like many wrestlers on this list though, trying to narrow down Ric Flair’s cavernous library of great matches to just one is an exercise in futility, but I’m reasonably happy with that selection. I could have easily selected Flair’s NWA World Title match with Harley Race at the first Starrcade though, or one his best matches with the likes of Lex Luger, Sting, Ricky Steamboat or Randy Savage. Flair was still capable of having at least a good match all the way up to his first proper retirement in 2008, even when he was long past his peak. Heck, Flair even got a shockingly good match out of Vince McMahon at Royal Rumble 2002, a feat even more impressive when you consider just how awful a wrestler McMahon was and that Flair hadn’t had a major television match for approaching 10 months or so prior to getting in there and working with McMahon.
As good as Flair could be as a babyface though (even if he might have personally disagreed) his Heel work was some of the best you will find. During his peak in the 80’s, Flair carried himself in a manner that put him on par with all the great Heel Champions. Regularly decked out in a fancy suit, and constantly bragging about his excessive wealth, Flair exuded the materialism and opulence that the decade of Reagan and Thatcher was defined by. Flair was almost the perfect Heel for the 80’s, especially as in a lot of the southern territories where he plied his trade the wrestling fans were often working class people who were fighting to keep their heads above water in an uncaring world. Seeing the likes of a Ronnie Garvin or a Dusty Rhodes get in there and slap Flair around was an almost therapeutic experience for a lot of fans, as was a segment where Steamboat embarrassed Flair by ripping the clothes from his body before sending him packing.
Flair’s in-ring style suited him well for the Heel role as well, as he could sell and sell and sell in order to make his babyface opponent look good, but he could also connive and find ways to avoid getting pinned, thus ensuring he regained the aura of being World Champion when it was all over with. Thus whether the match ended in a DQ or Flair managed to contrive a way to get a pin via cheating, normally the babyface was elevated and he had lost nothing from just getting whomped for 15-60 minutes. As mentioned earlier, it was a very successful formula and Flair drew well as the travelling World Champion who would stop over in different places all over the plant to defend his belt, be it America, Japan or even places like New Zealand.
Ric Flair may not have an unblotted notebook when it comes to his dealings outside of the ring, and I think it’s important to remember that when discussing him, but I also cannot deny that Flair’s body of work has stood the test of time. Even during the dog days of WCW or when he showed up in WWE in the 00’s when he was clearly past his best and starting to truly show the signs of age for the first time, Ric Flair was often still one of the more entertaining parts of any show he appeared on. Even something as simple as a “Woo” off with Kurt Angle in 2005 provided ample entertainment. In 2006 he was taking Superplexes off ladders and in 2008 he went out and had possibly the best match he could with Shawn Michaels at that years WrestleMania event. Though it wasn’t the sort of classic the Flair of old could have pulled off, it was still a respectable effort and really it should have been how Flair bowed out. I like to imagine that it was and not the debacle that was his real last match.
With figures like Ric Flair we want to remember them for who they were on the screen when we saw them at their peak, but unfortunately that’s not how things work out a lot of the time. Flair has gone some way to destroying a famous legacy by holding on for too long and for being an alleged creep outside of the ring. At his peak (and even a good chunk after the peak had passed) though he was a tremendous in-ring performer and one of the most charismatic figures in promos and angles that you could find.