Happy Wednesday Everyone!
This week we finally finish 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 haven’t been following along, please check the archives to get yourself updated on the first 45 selections if you feel like doing so.
The Match: Vs Bret Hart, WrestleMania 13 (23rd March 1997)
The 1998 Royal Rumble show had a pronounced effect on me and my wrestling fandom. At the time I was unable to watch either WCW or the WWF on television because it lived solely in the domain of satellite television and my family couldn’t afford that. However, my friend Jim had a tape of the event and introduced me to a whole new world of grapple action. Prior to the 98 Rumble my exposure to wrestling had extended to WCW’s brief stint on ITV in the early 90’s and the occasional play through of WWF Wrestle Fest if I happened to chance upon an arcade that had a cabinet of it set up.
Some of the more fortunate youngsters at school had the privilege of having access to Sky Sports and had started to watch the WWF regularly, and had brought their burgeoning fandom to school with them. One name continued to be mentioned over and over again, and it was that of “Stone Cold” Steve Austin. I’m pretty certain that Austin had made an appearance or two when I had watched WCW on ITV, but I had very vague recollection of watching that, with only really The Patriot (because he had a striking mask) and Hulk Hogan limping because he’d been attacked Tonya Harding style living in my memory. However, when Jim popped around with the Rumble show he assured me that ol’ Stone Cold was going to be part of the Rumble itself, so I was suitably excited to watch it and Austin didn’t let me down.
For those not au fait, the 1998 Royal Rumble match is memorable really only for Mick Foley entering as all three “Faces of Foley” and for Austin winning the match itself and advancing to WrestleMania XIV for his last step to superstardom. Seeing Austin get the superstar reaction, and also see him tear through the field, left me significantly impressed and I quickly became a big fan. Austin’s anti-authority character and his “Don’t Trust Anyone” personality made him an engrossing and exciting wrestler to watch because you never really knew what he was going to do next, and that unpredictability went a long way to making him into the megastar he became. Austin was just as likely to give his boss Vince McMahon a knuckle sandwich as he was to come in and deliver Stone Cold Stunner’s to other babyfaces like Ken Shamrock or Ahmed Johnson. He was the wildest man in the Wild West that was the Attitude Era, and he was gigantically popular.
In a lot of ways Austin’s feud with McMahon was a microcosm of what the Attitude Era itself was all about. Austin was the foul mouthed, aggressive, anti-authority figure who represented the cynicism of the 90’s perfectly, whilst McMahon was the suit wearing stuffy businessmen that defined so many of the things that people didn’t like about the 80’s. Whether you were someone who felt ground down by bosses at work, or ground down in other aspects of life, you could live vicariously through Austin as he stomped his way through a slew of obstacles. The only thing that really kept the Stone Cold character from being a straight up nihilist most of the time was his desire to be the WWF Champion. Austin may have been a heck raising force of nature who would fight anyone, but he was also at heart a competitor who wanted to be the best, and holding the Title allowed him to say so, which made the belt seem all the more important that even he wanted to hold it.
Initially I didn’t even remember Austin’s time in WCW, but as I gradually “smartened” up and discovered things like the internet, I realised that he had not only been in WCW but in ECW as well, and he’d had a remarkably different character in the form of “Stunning” Steve Austin. At one stage he’d even had hair! Intrigued, I took a dive into Austin’s WCW run and I enjoyed that mightily as well. Even when Austin was still quite young and wrestling in the TV Title division in 1991, you could tell that he had real star potential. His size and general physique helped with that perception, but Austin was also pretty mechanically sound relatively early into his career, with him just needing seasoning and the right character to really hit it big. Over two long TV Title reigns Austin showed that he had the goods from an in-ring perspective, and when he joined up with The Dangerous Alliance Heel stable he was able to show more personality.
However, it was Austin’s team with Brian Pillman that really laid down a marker for the potential stardom he could eventually enjoy, as the two developed really entertaining personalities on top of their solid wrestling skills. Austin insincerely stating that he and Brian were a “pair of swell guys” when they were as nefarious and scheming as humanly possible was top quality entertainment, and it’s a real shame that the team barely got to last a year before they were split up. Had they remained together for even a year longer they might have been one of the greatest tandem acts ever, as Austin and Pillman complemented one another really well as partners and they generally delivered good matches, especially when they got the chance to work in front of the southern based crowds that had been brought up on a diet of tag team wrestling.
Austin didn’t really spend that long in ECW, but the early signs of what would become Stone Cold started to show there and he was entertaining for the brief time he had. Paul Heyman was all-in on making Austin the ECW World Champion, but Austin got the offer to go to the WWF and decided to take it. Though Austin was saddled with the lame “Ringmaster” gimmick upon his debut, he eventually was inspired to use the Stone Cold name after his then wife Lady Blossom told him that his cup of tea would go cold if he didn’t drink it. Thus Austin had his name and new persona, modelled somewhat on that of a serial killer, and from that point on he had a gradual rise up the card. It wasn’t until Bret Hart asked to work with him in late 96 though that Austin really broke out of the pack from a reasonably well-pushed wrestler into being a potential future WWF Champ.
Austin and Bret had some superb matches together, with their battle at WrestleMania 13 being possibly my favourite match of all-time, as they brutalised one another in a battle that often mirrored a gruelling fight scene in an intense thriller movie. Austin eventually lost the match, but in defeat he turned babyface due to his gutsy display and took another step towards mega stardom. Even a serious neck injury (suffered against Owen Hart in the summer of 97) couldn’t hold back Austin’s meteoric rise up the card, as he took part in angles to make up for not being able to wrestle matches and ended up getting even more over, especially when he started dropping WWF personnel with Stunners, such as commentator Jim Ross, Commissioner Sgt Slaughter and eventually the owner himself, Vince McMahon.
Austin would then show impressive adaptability, as the neck injury coupled with serious injuries to both his knees meant that he couldn’t wrestle the more technical based style he had previously delivered. However, Austin could brawl with the best of them and he was able to turn a negative into a positive by evolving his style into the story and brawl based approach that would eventually be named “Main Event Style” by online writers such as Scott Keith. It was within this style that Austin had some of his better bouts post-injury, such as two belters against Mick Foley in the spring of 1998 as well as some cracking bouts with the likes of The Rock and Triple H. Once Austin got some much needed neck surgery in 2000 he was able to briefly wrestle an intensive high impact style for a bit against the likes of Kurt Angle, Chris Jericho and Chris Benoit, until the constant abuse on this previously injured area caused him to have to retire from full-time action in 2003.
Looking at just his WWF peak run, Austin’s time in the spotlight was actually quite short, but when you take into account his efforts in both WCW and ECW I think he was genuinely one of Pro Wrestling’s best performers over a near 10 year period. In the interest of fairness and seeing as I took the time to mention Ric Flair’s issues in last week’s article, I should take a moment to point out that Austin has also been in the news at points over the years for some problematic reasons as well, so I wouldn’t blame anyone if that in-turn hampered some of the enjoyment they could glean from his on-screen career. Separating the art from the artist is never a straightforward process and sometimes it’s really difficult to do so, and if Austin is that line for you then fair enough. I did feel it would be disingenuous to not include Austin in this list though as he remains one of my all-time favourite performers on-screen, even though it’s perhaps not with the same ease it would have been in a world without his off-screen behaviour.
Whether it be as the beer drinking Stone Cold, the mouthy arrogant Hollywood Blonde, or as the Superstar of ECW who seemed to be on the verge of cracking with every appearance, Steve Austin has been a part of not just some of my favourite matches but also some of my favourite storylines. Like with many members of this list, trying to narrow down a match to just one is just asking for bother, but I think the Mania 13 match with Hart would be on my list of Desert Island matches that I’d want with me forever. If you’ve only really seen Austin’s work from the WWF/E though and you happen to access to a WWE Network or Peacock subscription then I strongly suggest taking a dive into the archives to look at some of his WCW and ECW work, because there’s a lot to enjoy there as well.
The Match: Vs Ric Flair, WCW Clash of Champions (27th March 1988)
In my opinion there is no wrestler that represents all the things I liked about WCW more than Sting did. The WWF may have been my first wrestling love, but as the years have trundled along I find myself enjoying WCW more and more, even including some of the really bad stuff they produced. As slapdash and generally pathetically run a promotion as WCW was most of the time, it did have a host of memorable matches and moments, with Sting often being at the core of that. Whether he was taking on Ric Flair in classic World Title contests, establishing Vader as the premier Monster Heel in all of American Wrestling, or standing up to defend WCW against the evil plans of the nWo, Sting was a WCW wrestler than bridged Era’s and gave even those who didn’t like the promotion a figure they could respect.
A regular refrain I hear from certain wrestling fans, both back at the time and even today, was/is “I really don’t care for WCW at all, but I’ll give you one thing, that Sting guy is really cool”. I’ve heard both blond haired “Surfer” Sting and dark brooding “Crow” Sting referred to in this manner. There was just something about the way Sting carried himself that allowed him to transcend how good or bad WCW was at any given time in order to become a popular symbol of the company. I think it helped that Sting never jumped to other companies whilst WCW was alive, which you couldn’t even say for the likes of other stars that often get associated with the company such as The Steiner Brothers, Ric Flair and Arn Anderson. DDP and Goldberg didn’t jump either, although they both ventured into WWE long before Sting did.
Critics of Sting like to throw in his general direction that he wasn’t ever a great draw or an amazing worker, but I often think that ignores the mitigating circumstances that surrounded Sting for most of his WCW run. Yes, Sting was hardly drawing 15,000 sell-out crowds all by himself, but without him at certain points WCW had practically NOTHING, especially in the early 90’s when Flair, Luger and The Steiner’s (amongst others) skipped town, leaving Sting to do all the heavy lifting by himself. Very few guys outside of some of the biggest draws in history would be able to make that work, and Sting being there at least gave WCW something to still remain even partially relevant. Sting may not have been a Flair or Hogan level draw, but he kept the lights on during desperate times and he eventually ended up drawing WCW’s biggest ever buy rate when he took on Hogan, and I doubt any other WCW guy could have matched that return against Hogan outside of a properly promoted Goldberg.
As far as in-ring ability went, I’d argue that Sting was better than he is sometimes remembered as. Don’t get me wrong, he wasn’t challenging the likes of Flair or Ricky Steamboat when it came to wrestling ability, but Sting was still very capable in the ring, being able to have energetic exciting matches thanks to his speed and charisma. It often gets forgotten just how good a seller Sting was/is as well, something that I think has become more clearly crystallised during his time in AEW, as the art of selling properly isn’t always practised these days, so Sting coming along with his veteran approach to it immediately makes him stand out. Sting was a large, fast, powerful looking wrestler, but he was also excellent at gaining sympathy from the crowd, especially when he went in there with big monsters like Vader or Sid.
So yes, Sting wasn’t the biggest drawing card in wrestling history, nor was he the greatest in-ring performer either, but he was a dependable figure and a good worker who benefitted from having intangibles that others didn’t, such as a genuine cool factor and an ability to make a crowd care about him. For me personally, I just thought Sting was instantly cool the minute I saw him. In some ways I felt similar about The Ultimate Warrior, and the two in fact came into the business together and both became World Champs in 1990. I personally think Sting was the more versatile of the two though, as well as the more psychologically adjusted, meaning that he had far longer staying power in the business. I don’t think many would argue against the suggestion that Sting was the better overall wrestler of the two also, even though Warrior did have some great matches over the course of his career.
During his time in WCW Sting would probably be known for two particular storylines the most, those being his long running feud with Ric Flair and his descent into becoming a loner fighting against the New World Order faction. It was during the former feud/storyline that I selected the match for this feature, as Sting wrestled Flair to a 45 minute time limit draw on live television. Sting was already getting over prior to this match, but this match essentially “made” him, as Flair did an incredible job in putting the youngster over. Sting to his credit carried his end of things though, working a quick clip for 45 minutes and holding his own with Flair in impressive fashion. It really is a superb match that in a perfect world would have teed Sting for being the next great wrestling megastar, but sadly booking issues, injuries and some of Sting’s own shortcomings would prevent that from happening.
When it came to the nWo feud, WCW built the eventual epic match between Sting and Hogan for over a year, to the point that fans were desperate to see Sting bring Hogan’s tyrannical reign atop the company to an end. Sting for his part was excellent as the brooding babyface who loomed above the arena in the rafters waiting to strike. Steve Borden has probably gotten more out of the Crow character than anyone involved in the movies ever did, as he’s been doing a version of it now since 1996, to the point that many see it as the definitive “look” of his career. Sadly for Sting though the eventual payoff was a miserable match at Starrcade 97 where Hogan essentially beat him clean in the middle, thus killing off Sting’s drawing power then and there.
Sting did still manage to win a few more World Title’s following this (including a bizarre couple of months in 1999 where WCW tried to turn him Heel) but he was never the same as a draw following Starrcade. Despite that, Sting did tear it up in matches with the likes of DDP, Lance Storm and Booker T in the dying days of the promotion, and he would have quite a long run in TNA/IMPACT for big chunks of the 00’s and 10’s until he finally had a brief WWE run in 14-15. Sting in many ways was one of IMPACT’s few real stars, as he did a lot to try and put the company on the map, including working with the likes of AJ Styles, Bobby Roode and Nick Aldis on their way up the card there. Sting also had some truly great matches in TNA/IMPACT as well, with a couple of bouts against Kurt Angle in 07-08 being especially good.
Sting’s eventual WWE run ended up being disappointing due to him only working a handful of matches until an injury put him out of commission, thus robbing the fans of the one match they actually wanted to see him in against The Undertaker. The WrestleMania 31 match with Triple H is a fun smoke and mirrors escapade, although the finish is head scratching, whilst the match with Seth Rollins is genuinely pretty darn good until Sting gets hurt. It felt for all intents and purposes that Sting’s in-ring career was over following the match with Rollins, but he had an unexpected wrestling revival in All Elite Wrestling, leading to him making some crazy dives off the entrance way in exciting brawls whilst tagging with Darby Allin. Obviously Sting needs a lot of protection to deliver a fun match these days, but he’s mostly delivered in all his in-ring performances and he remains a very popular legendary figure amongst the AEW fan base.
Sting remains one of my all-time favourite wrestlers; with the enjoyment I derive from him being a result of numerous different factors all coming together. His charisma and the energy he creates are still present after many years of ring wars, with each stage of his career having at least a handful of great matches in it. Whether it’s the matches with Flair in the 80’s and 90s, his brutal battles with Vader, his thrilling contests with DDP, his top-notch classics with Kurt Angle in TNA or his continued efforts in AEW, Sting has been an enduring and exciting grapple merchant who retains a strong fan base the world over. Though WCW and WWE may have ultimately squandered the opportunities to make him feel like a truly big deal, TNA and AEW have both done a far better job and I believe he has become a truly legendary figure in the wrestling world.
The Match: Vs Razor Ramon, WWF WrestleMania (20th March 1994)
Shawn Michaels may have been a drug addled locker room disease at the peak of his in-ring powers, but gosh darn was he an excellent wrestler during that peak. I’m perhaps in a unique group of people who has never really picked a side in the great Shawn Vs Bret feud of the 90’s. Both wrestlers were great workers in their own way and they could both whinge with the best of them when they wanted to, so it’s not like there’s a particular artistic or moral reason to strongly support one over the other. Shawn is ever-so-slightly lower on my personal list, but that’s only because I personally prefer more of the patient mat based approach that Hart would take into his matches in comparison to Michaels’ more bombastic quick-paced approach. Both of them were still incredible wrestlers though and I like them both a big deal.
Michaels did have the career renaissance from his back injury that Hart sadly couldn’t get from his head injuries, with Michaels returning in 2002 and having a stellar run up until 2010. Sometimes I think I might even prefer latter career Michaels just because he played an old lion who could still hang really well, especially when he started to show some of the more noticeable signs of aging in his face and body. Michaels’ feuds with the likes of Randy Orton, Chris Jericho (twice) and Batista led to some truly outstanding matches, with Michaels destroying it on pay per view with all three on them on different occasions, including a thrilling bout with Orton at Survivor Series 2007 and an unreal collision with Jericho at No Mercy 2008. Michaels also had time for memorable WrestleMania outings with the likes of Kurt Angle, John Cena, Ric Flair and The Undertaker, with the second Mania match with Undertaker putting the cap on his career.
Though 2002-10 Michaels had some exceptional outings, from 1995 up until a career threatening back injury in early 1998, you could make an argument that Michaels was the very best in-ring performer in the entire industry, and when you take into account who was working in places like Japan (both in men’s and women’s wrestling) and Mexico at the time that is no small feat on Michaels’ part. Michaels was just a force of nature in the ring, having good to great matches with almost everyone, even guys who were way past their best like King Kong Bundy and Yokozuna. He even dragged Sid to a couple of watchable contests, which is something only Chris Benoit was also really able to accomplish. Michaels’ ability to get good matches out of people he really shouldn’t have cemented him as a firm favourite amongst the hardcore crowd, whilst his abrasive personality and cocky attitude made him a hit with the regular match going fan (especially the ladies).
Sadly for Michaels, when the WWF decided to run with him as WWF Champ in 1996 they made the same mistake they had previously made with Kevin “Diesel” Nash by attempting to sand down his rougher edges in order to make him more palatable to a wider audience. The women still loved him because he was a good looking dude, and not outlandishly sized in the manner previous top babyface stars like Hulk Hogan and The Ultimate Warrior had been, but the dudes in the crowd gradually began to resent him. It didn’t help that Vince McMahon went totally over the top in trying to make Michaels feel like the coolest guy in the world, which only made Michaels seem all the less cool, especially when Vince was trying to “Fun Uncle” the whole thing by dancing around to Sexy Boy whilst throatily screaming “SSSHHHHHAAAAAWWWWNNNNNNN MMMMIIIIICCCCHHHHHAAAAEEEEELLLLLSSSSSSSSS”.
What also didn’t help was that Michaels was a massive troublemaker behind the scenes, complaining long and loud about everything and even refusing to drop his WWF Title in the ring more than once. This led to generating genuine backstage drama between Michaels and the likes of Bret Hart, with Hart especially hating Michaels’ attitude and propensity to only want to wrestle his mates like Triple H and Sean Waltman in big matches. Despite all the backstage issues he caused though, Michaels continued to kill it in the ring, having tremendous pay per view offerings with the likes of Scott Hall, Kevin Nash, Jeff Jarrett, Mick Foley, Davey Boy Smith and others. Ironically it was with Bret Hart that Michaels had one of his lesser outings, as I’ve never really liked their WrestleMania XII Iron Man match due to it having a distinct lack of drama because neither wanted to drop any falls to the other.
Michaels was eventually able to channel the genuine dislike some of the fan base had for him into a very effective Heel character which, when paired up with fellow degenerate Triple H and his imposing bodyguard Chyna, led to Michaels drawing close to nuclear heat every week. D-Generation X played a big part in the WWF getting back in the game against WCW, as they were not only effective Heels that the fans would want to see get creamed by the likes of Stone Cold Steve Austin, but also an increasingly edgy and more dangerous act that WCW wouldn’t be able to replicate due to their tighter standards and practices. D-X made the nWo look a bit long in the tooth and relatively tame for the first time, which hadn’t been the case when the WCW faction had first formed. The nWo had proudly worn the tag of the most gritty mainstream wrestling faction for over a year, but once WCW really kicked into gear they took that crown rather easily and it gave the WWF a definite edge over WCW, even if D-X’s influence and effectiveness is somewhat exaggerated within WWE’s own slanted history (Michaels was gone by this stage anyway, but driving a tank to Nitro for a lame skit didn’t do anywhere near the damage to WCW as WWE likes to pretend it did).
I’ve not even touched on Michaels’ pre-95 career, which saw him spend a big chunk of the time teaming with Marty Jannetty as The Rockers. Michaels and Jannetty were a fantastic team, even though you felt like the WWF never really featured them to their fullest, and even when they did they soon broke them up anyway. The Rockers did have two excellent tag team outings on pay per view in 1991, opening the show at both the Royal Rumble and WrestleMania events of that year and firing up the crowd with their impressive tandem offence and babyface passion. The Rumble match with Pat Tanaka and Paul Diamond is my pick for the better of the two matches, but the Mania effort with The Barbarian and Meng is a darn good piece of business as well and both matches are worked differently too, so they are both great in their own unique ways.
Sadly for Jannetty, Michaels eclipsed him as a star following their split to such a degree that the tag partner who does worse in a split is still sometimes referred to as the “Jannetty” of the team. This feels somewhat unfair as Jannetty was a very good wrestler in his own right and, had he not been a nutter who did a load of drugs, he possibly could have been a solid star in the WWF for years based off residual overness that came from being in The Rockers. Sadly for Jannetty he ended up being a drug taking mentalist and that led to him being eternally mocked for his post-Rockers slide. Michaels and Jannetty did have some good matches together following the split, but by the end of 1993 Michaels was on his way to better things, notably a feud with Razor Ramon over the WWF Intercontinental Title.
It was against Ramon that Michaels had the bout I’ve chosen for the match selection here; as the two had an incredible ladder match at WrestleMania X. Michaels hadn’t been the one to initially bring the ladder match to the WWF, with it in fact being Bret Hart who had imported it from the Stampede Promotion his father had operated. Michaels and Hart had competed against one another in the first WWF ladder match in 1992, although the match was a non-televised home video exclusive. When the concept was brought back, it was decided that Michaels and Ramon would be the two to do battle, which left Hart feeling bitter that he had brought the concept into the WWF and then essentially had the rug pulled out from under him as it became Michaels’ signature gimmick match.
It feels like it’s forgotten sometimes that Michaels actually lost both of the first two WWF ladder matches, to Hart and Ramon respectively, but his performance in the second latter bout was so impressive that it was a launching point for Michaels up the card, especially as the contest took place at the WWF’s showcase event. Michaels and Ramon would have another exceptional ladder bout at SummerSlam of 1995, but I’ve always personally preferred the first one just because it always felt like it had a greater impact due to the setting and the build, whilst the second Ramon battle felt like they just threw it on the card to rescue a weak line-up. There are plenty of other fantastic Michaels matches you could have here of course, but this is always a go-to one for me, and it’s a match I’ve seen numerous times yet still love. Ironically I feel the same about Bret Hart’s match with his brother Owen from the same show, which is also absolute classic in its own different way.
Backstage issues aside, Shawn Michaels remains one of the most entertaining wrestlers of all-time, and for that reason I still consider him one of my personal favourites. His ability to sell, time comebacks and know exactly when to take a big bump in order to enhance a match was almost unparalleled and he could have great matches with a variety of different opponents providing he was willing to play ball. His 1996 Title run might have ended up being a flop from a creative and business perspective, but in-ring he was pretty much the man that year, tearing it up with everyone to the point that almost every match of his was must-see. Regardless of how Michaels was portrayed and promoted, you could usually rely on him to deliver the goods when the bell rang, and when he turned Heel in 1997 he became one of the hottest acts in the whole industry.
Michaels passing the torch to Stone Cold Steve Austin in 1998 was a pivotal moment in wrestling history, as Austin got his big WrestleMania coronation and a great match to go with it. Of course rumours abound that Michaels had to be essentially intimidated by The Undertaker to do the job, something he’s always denied I should add, but the match itself was excellent and Michaels gave an impressive performance as he battled through a destroyed back before looking at the lights clean as a sheet. Had that been his last match it would have been a good way to go out, but his “second coming” led to even more great matches and his legacy as one of the greatest in-ring wrestlers ever was assured long before Undertaker put him away at WrestleMania in 2010 (we’ll pretend his poorly received return for a Saudi show in the 10’s didn’t happen). I always perk up when I watch an old show and see that Michaels is on it because I expect I’m going to get something worth watching, and Michaels will usually deliver.
The Match: Vs Diesel, WWF Survivor Series (19th November 1995)
Often it’s not about what moves you deliver, but how and why you deliver them. It can be forgotten that Pro Wrestling is a storytelling medium, where the action in the ring can sometimes be secondary to the purpose for it to take place in the first place. In my opinion, few in wrestling understood this more than Bret Hart. Yes, Hart had his signature moves and some sublime technical wrestling skills, but what often mattered far more was the story he was trying to tell inside the ring. Very rarely did a Bret Hart match not make sense or could you not see what he was going for. Either as a hero or a villain, Bret Hart had a clear plan and idea for what he wanted the audience to feel and think in his matches.
Whether it was him limping to the ring ahead of his match with Yokozuna at WrestleMania X and then spending the majority of the match selling in order to let the fans know he was going to have a big uphill battle against the monster Heel, or the way he brutally attacked Stone Cold Steve Austin throughout their classic WrestleMania 13 battle in order to show that he was gradually turning to the dark side after years of being a babyface, Bret Hart always had the story in place, even if the wrestling wasn’t always great. Hart could sometimes admittedly be accused of not always entering top level effort in his performances if he felt he could coast, which is probably the main criticism you could throw his way, along with a perhaps inflated sense of his own importance. However, when it was “go” time, Bret Hart could go, and even when he had it in a lower gear his matches still made sense and you could follow them.
My first exposure to Bret Hart was actually through the WWF War Zone video game on the PlayStation, where I instantly thought he was great and I would regularly select him as my playable character. At the time Hart wasn’t in the WWF anymore and we hadn’t started getting WCW on Channel 5 yet, so often the only time I got to see him wrestle was on older WWF video tapes, and I instantly took a liking to him. One of the first times I saw him wrestle properly was when I rented WrestleMania 2 from the local library of all places and saw him take part in the big Battle Royal with all the footballers. He took an impressive bump down to the floor as the Runner-Up against Andre The Giant and I liked him and his partner The Anvil, even though they weren’t wearing their pink gear yet. Next up was SummerSlam 91 as my friend Adam had that on VHS, and I saw Hart win the Intercontinental Title from Mr. Perfect in a fabulous match that I enjoyed immensely.
For whatever reason I took to Bret Hart very quickly, even from a younger age. It might have been that he wasn’t a massive muscular freak like some of the other wrestlers of his Era, and that made him easier to connect with. It could have been that deep down I always appreciated the actual wrestling ability he had, even though I perhaps wasn’t smart enough to the business yet to really understand that element of it. It could be that Hart was such a good babyface and I was first exposed to him in that role, meaning that I always had that appreciation for him even after I saw his Heel work. Certainly when I started watching WCW in 1999 I gravitated to Hart and often cheered him on, especially when he took on Chris Benoit in a tribute match to Owen Hart. That match may have been one of the earliest moments of me realising that a good match was actually good and being cognisant of the reasons why. In some ways my long love of technical wrestling might have begun with that excellent Nitro match between Hart and Benoit.
Regardless of his petty squabbles with the likes of Shawn Michaels and his sometimes overly serious approach to the grapple game, Bret Hart was truly one of the best to ever do it, and I don’t think many would disagree with that. Hart’s ability to sell, time big moves and just generally tell a story throughout a match already made him a World Class grapple merchant, and that was before we got into his superb mechanical skills. One thing that I personally think gets slept on when it comes to Bret Hart is just how good his punches were for instance. I think Hart had possibly some of the best punches in all of wrestling, which is funny as he’s often regarded more as a straight technician when he actually could be very versatile in there and worked some excellent brawls. Hart didn’t take to the air anywhere near as much as his arch rival Michaels, but he could do a plancha or a dive if a bout called for it, he just picked his spots more diligently than Michaels did.
Hart and Jim Neidhart were a great duo in the WWF, holding the tag belts multiple times and having excellent matches against the likes of The British Bulldogs, The Brain Busters, Demolition and The Nasty Boys. It was quite the golden age for the tag division in the WWF, an age we’ll probably never see again, with the tag ranks so ludicrously stacked you could Survivor Series matches with 10 teams going at it and there would still be some left over. I consider The Hart Foundation’s match with Demolition at SummerSlam 1990 to be one of the best tag efforts the WWF has ever presented, especially with the crowd pleasing finish and cameo from The Road Warriors. However, The Hart Foundation had lots of good to great matches with a variety of teams, including the likes of The Killer Bees and Strike Force to name a few. They just gelled perfectly, with Hart as the smaller more technical one whilst Neidhart was the bigger more powerful one, leading to them meshing well with a host of tag team opponents.
Hart got his big singles run in 1991 with the aforementioned match with Perfect at SummerSlam 1991 and he began to just hit it out of the park on big events, having great dramatic matches with both Roddy Piper and Davey Boy Smith at WrestleMania VIII and SummerSlam 1992 respectively. Hart really was the MVP for 1992 in the WWF, and in a nice touch they actually rewarded him for it by having him win the WWF Title from Ric Flair in the second half of the year. This was partly a response to the steroid controversy surrounding the wrestling world at the time, as Hart at least didn’t look like he did a load of steroids and he wouldn’t really lose much in size if he were to stop. Plus, Hart was genuinely a very popular wrestler amongst both the hardcore and casual fans, so he made just as much sense as any of the other candidates (one of which was apparently Tito Santana of all people, who was a great worker but hadn’t exactly been pushed as a star since about 1988).
Hart won more fans as a fighting Champion who would take on anyone, but unfortunately for him a planned WWF Title match with Hulk Hogan never materialised, with rumours abounding that Hogan refused to work with Hart, whilst another side of the story goes that Vince McMahon just promised it to Hart in order to keep Hart happy when he had no intention of actually delivering. Regardless, Hart lost his hard earned WWF Title at WrestleMania IX and didn’t sniff the belt again until the following year, although he did have some fun feuds with Jerry Lawler and his brother Owen along the way. The feud with Owen was one of the best of Hart’s career, as Owen played the despicable devious younger brother excellently and their two bouts at WrestleMania X and SummerSlam 1994 were in the top three of matches the WWF put on whole year, with perhaps only Michael’s big ladder match with Razor Ramon rivalling them in quality.
Hart lost the WWF Title at the end of 1994 to Bob Backlund and had a pretty quiet 1995 whilst he played second fiddle to Shawn Michaels and Kevin Nash. However, a year on from losing his belt to Backlund he defeated Nash to win it back at Survivor Series 1995. I have selected this bout as the match for this article, although I was spoilt for choice when it came to Hart, like I have been for many of the other wrestlers on this list. I feel this bout with Nash sums up just how good a storyteller Hart was, as he and Nash tore the house down in a thrilling fight, which is all the more impressive when you consider that Nash was kind of limited in what he could deliver in the ring a lot of the time. Hart really understood how to plan a match around any inadequacies or weaknesses an opponent had in order to make them look good, and he got three very good and very different matches out of Nash over the course of their pay per view rivalry, with the Survivor Series match being the pick of the bunch, especially as it debuted the often repeated “table bump” through the Spanish commentary table.
As I mentioned in the Michaels write-up, despite their fabled real-life feud, Michaels and Hart never really had that all-time classic great match in my opinion. I know some love the Iron Man match at WrestleMania XII, but it’s just never been my cup of tea due to the lack of falls. Ironically the best match they probably ever had was instantly overshadowed by how it ended and the match portion rarely gets discussed anymore. However, prior to the finish that we all remember and have talked about beyond all realms of reason, the bout between Michaels and Hart at Survivor Series 1997 is actually a darn good hate-filled brawl, as the two men clobber one another from one end of the Centre Bell to the other in a fantastically heated bout. It’s just a shame about the controversy at the end really, as if Hart had been sticking around and Michaels had agreed to do the honours, Hart could have cinched in The Sharpshooter following that intense fight and blown the roof off the joint for an all-time great finish.
Hart’s best days were behind him when he landed in WCW, although he did still have some darn good matches with the likes of Ric Flair, Chris Benoit and Diamond Dallas Page. Sadly Hart was unable to end his career on his terms, as an errant kick from Bill Goldberg gave him a career ending concussion that he never recovered from. However, from his debut in the mainstream in the 80’s up to the end of the 90’s, Bret Hart had one of the best collections of matches you could hope to find. As someone who loves good wrestling, it’s clear why I have gravitated to Bret Hart all of these years. However, as someone who has grown to really appreciate wrestling for its ability to weave richer narratives than it is often given credit for, Bret Hart was always going to be high on this list. His work was almost always crisp, but his psychological grasp of the medium was almost unmatched.
The Match: Vs Toshiaki Kawada, All Japan Pro Wrestling (12th June 1998)
Yes, it’s a Japanese wrestler. I know a certain subsection of wrestling fan will be appalled that my favourite wrestler of all-time is one of those wacky Japanians, but I’ve long enjoyed the Japanese style and Kenta Kobashi has always been one of the very best in that arena. The truth is that when I first started watching Japanese wrestling I actually didn’t really like the Heavyweights and would instead often just look out for the Junior Heavyweight wrestlers, notably the ones you would find in New Japan and Michinoku Pro. However, in the early 00’s I discovered Pro-Wrestling NOAH for the first time and the Heavyweight style gradually began to win me over, with Kenta Kobashi being a big reason as to why. Kobashi had all of the big strikes and head dropping moves that made the genre famous, but he also had incredible fire and some of the most intense selling I’d ever seen, which just enhanced how good he already was.
One of Kobashi’s big finishing moves was always the Lariat, a move that simply saw him fling an outstretched arm at an opponent to send them clattering down to the mat. One of the first matches that really got me hooked on Kobashi was his blistering bout with Yoshihiro Takayama in the spring of 2004, as the two lads walloped the heck out of one another with big strikes. Kobashi ended up having his arm targeted, which seemingly would remove his ability to Lariat. However, Kobashi still used the move but made a big show of how much pain it caused him to deliver it. What Kobashi also did though was convey through selling and facial expressions that even though using a Lariat with his injured arm was causing him all kinds of agony, he was so fired up and determined to win that he was going to endure it and push through. Normally someone having a body part worked over and then still using the appendage would wind me up, but Kobashi addressed it as part of the match’s story and ended up making it work. Seeing such smart psychology really rammed home to me just how darn great Kobashi was and it made me a fan for life.
Kobashi had a long run with NOAH’s World Title in the 00’s, holding it for 2 years between 2003 and 2005, and during that run he not only had a slew of great matches with a varied list of opponents but he also did excellent business at NOAH’s traditional big show venue of Budokan Hall, constantly drawing large crowds who would lustily chant his name. NOAH was quickly becoming one of my favourite companies, and as I learned more about it I discovered that a lot of the wrestlers within it had originally been part of the All Japan Pro Wrestling roster in the 80’s and 90’s. Due to a schism between NOAH owner Mitsuharu Misawa and Makoto Baba of All Japan, Misawa had broken away to form his own company, with Kobashi being one of the many to jump with him. Realising that there was probably a treasure trove of great matches to be found by digging into the All Japan archives, I picked up some compilation tapes (this was prior to YouTube) and was quickly blown away by what I found.
Kobashi had an insane back catalogue of tremendous matches from his All Japan run, as he took on the likes of Misawa, Toshiaki Kawada, Jun Akiyama, Vader, Steve Williams and Stan Hansen, and tore down the house with all of them. Kobashi’s in-ring style changed a lot over the course of his career, mostly due to his body getting broken down as a result of the unforgiving and hard-hitting styles found in All Japan and NOAH. Kobashi in his earlier career was known for speed and even some high-flying, as he would regularly come off the top rope with moves like leg drops and shoulder tackles, with his go-to big move from there being an always impressive looking Moonsault. However, by the time Kobashi was in NOAH in the 00’s, his knees had taken an almighty shellacking and he had been forced to adapt his style into a more deliberate technical one based around throwing bombs. Kobashi still had classic matches, just in a different way, not dissimilar to how Keiji Muto had adjusted his own in-ring style (with a knee destroying Moonsault being a big contributing factor for him as well).
Kobashi not only had some truly exceptional singles matches during his time in All Japan but he also tore it up in the tag ranks with partners Misawa, Tsuyoshi Kikuchi and Akiyama. The team with Kikuchi in particular produced some outstanding outings, with Kobashi being the bigger of the two and being perfect for hot tags, whilst the smaller Kikuchi could sell like nobody’s business and was known as one of the most exciting lighter-weight wrestlers in the entire industry before too many heavy beatings wore him down. One match the Kobashi/Kikuchi tandem had that almost redfined great tag wrestling was a battle with Doug Furnas and Dan Kroffat in May of 1992. Featuring perhaps one of the hottest crowds I’ve ever heard, both teams traded exciting near falls and left the audience breathless when all was said and done. It really is one of the best tag team matches of all-time in my opinion, with Kikuchi taking one of the most impressive battering’s I’ve ever seen and Kobashi being smooth as silk with all of his big moves.
Kobashi and Misawa also had a series of tremendous matches as a team against Kawada and Akira Taue, with Kobashi usually being the second banana to Misawa in that tandem but always holding his own and sometimes even stealing the show with some of his selling and bumping. In the singles realm Kobashi took on all of the top stars in the promotion, having an absolute WAR with Stan Hansen in July of 1993 where Kobashi absorbed, amongst other things, a powerbomb onto the wooden floor and a terrifying Lariat down to the mat whilst perched atop the top rope. Kobashi would get unreal support from the crowd when matched up against big scary foreigners like Hansen and Vader due to his ability to sell and show fire in the ring. When Kobashi got all good and angered and started dishing out punishment to the bigger scarier opponents it almost felt like the crowd was living vicariously through him as he tried to take them down. Even watching in my living room I could feel that passion and excitement through my TV screen, so I can only imagine just how electric it would have been to be in the crowd seeing those bouts live.
As well as their time as a team, Kobashi and Misawa had many big singles matches together across their time in All Japan and NOAH, with their bout in March of 2003 for NOAH being a fantastic battle pitting two aging sluggers going down to the ring for one last classic singles collision. I must say though that, good as the matches with Misawa often were, I often enjoyed seeing Kobashi take on Kawada more. Kawada in some ways was the perfect opponent for Kobashi. Whilst Kobashi was vibrant, fiery and had a natural likability, Kawada was gruff, no nonsense and just generally sour. Thus a lot of Kobashi and Kawada matches often came down to Kawada inflicting cruel punishment on Kobashi until it was time for Kobashi to finally get some sustained offence of his own, with a great example being a match between the two in June of 1998. I ended up picking this contest as the match selection, just because it inhabits a list of matches that not only got me emotionally invested in such a manner that I leapt off the sofa at the finish, but because it also managed to get my Dad (someone with little time for wrestling) to actually care about it and enjoy it (although his bum remained attached to the sofa at the bout’s conclusion).
I feel like a broken record here, but it remains the case when it comes to so many great wrestlers in one list, when I say that narrowing all of Kobashi’s great matches to just one was, frankly, impossible. Kenta Kobashi has one of the most glittering match libraries of any wrestler you could find, with him having at least one all-time great match for every year he was healthy and working regularly. Heck, even when he was suffering from injuries and could only make sporadic appearances in big match settings, Kobashi could still often be relied upon to at least have a fun outing. I remember going to see NOAH when they came over to the UK in 2008 and ran a show in Coventry. Kobashi tagged up with protégé Go Shiozaki to take on Misawa and Naomichi Marufuji, and it remains one of the most amazing experiences I’ve had at a live wrestling event. Sure, the match wasn’t a 5 Star Classic, but it was still incredibly fun and exciting, with Kobashi and Misawa getting a standing ovation just for looking at each other at one point. When you can get a round of applause for not doing anything yet then you know you’re good at your job!
Kenta Kobashi had to fight off other health issues, including those not brought on by wrestling and eventually retired in May 2013 after a storied career. In some ways it was very sad to see him have to hang the boots up, but on the other hand whenever I’ve seen footage of Kobashi these days he usually has a smile on his face and he seems to be getting around somewhat well for a guy who smashed his body to pieces wrestling an intense hard-hitting style for so many years, so getting out when he did was likely the correct action to take. Kobashi certainly leaves behind one of the most impressive collection of matches you can find for a top level wrestler, and he remains popular amongst long term Japanese wrestling fans to this day. Thanks to streaming sites as well, it has never been easier to find some of Kobashi’s best matches. Whereas people of my generation had to watch matches on fuzzy tapes that he been recorded and re-recorded numerous times, the wrestling fans of today can enjoy the action in clear video quality at just the click of a mouse.
If you take anything away from this list then I at very least hope that you have some matches in your “watch list” that you perhaps might not have previously looked at. Obviously there are a host of supremely talented wrestlers who did not make this list, with many who deserved inclusion on the cusp and just missing out. Heck, I could have easily written paragraphs of praise regarding the likes of Bayley or Koji Kanemoto, but they just got edged out when it came down to the crunch. Who knows, if you all enjoyed this then maybe an “honourable mention” list could be done one day?
If I’ve left out any wrestlers you personally love then I apologise. Their exclusion should not be considered a knock or an insult. After all, this is just a subjective list based around my own personal tastes and viewing habits. There’s a dearth of Luchadores and Joshi wrestlers here because I just don’t watch a lot of that and it wouldn’t have been genuine or authentic to crowbar someone in just for “credibility” or anything like that.
Ultimately this is just a list of wrestlers that I like for varying reasons, so if yours is totally different then that’s cool. It’s not like I see myself as some bastion of taste or whatever. A lot of the list had a lot of an older slant as well as I just don’t watch as much current wrestling these days as I instead like to dip back into the classic stuff so I can wrap myself in the warmth of nostalgia in order to try and ignore the incoming tide of misery that modern life seems to always bring with it.
I think a big oversight was the lack of women wrestlers, which wasn’t a conscious decision on my part. As I mentioned all the way back in the opening post, there are a lot of women on the scene currently that I enjoy watching such as Bayley, Bianca Belair, Becky Lynch, Sasha Banks, Toni Storm, Thunder Rosa and many more. The women’s game in the west is as good as it’s possibly ever been and I could have easily included many of the top performers if this list had been longer. I wanted the list to be authentic, and that’s why it ended up as it did, but that’s not intended as a knock on the women on the wrestling scene who are tearing it up all over the world.
I hope you enjoyed joining me on this journey. It has taken a long time to collate all of this and I shudder to think how many words it totalled to, but if you’ve gleamed some enjoyment from reading it then it was worth the toil. We’ll be back next week with something new when I try to re-book a WCW show from the 90’s.