The recent retirement of Ric Flair has sparked a lot of talk about who the greatest wrestler of all time is. It's a complex question because everyone has a different idea of what constitutes a great wrestler. Is it the best worker? The biggest box office draw? The biggest crossover celebrity? What about longevity?
I think a less ambiguous question would be: Who is the best all-around performer? I define that as the wrestler who possesses the best combination of in-ring ability, charisma and promo skills. Following that criteria, I have come up with a list of my top 10.
Wrestlers who excelled in one aspect but were significantly deficient in another did not make the cut. For example, Hulk Hogan, the biggest star in the history of wrestling, did not make the list because his in-ring work was average at best. On the flip side, an outstanding worker such as Chris Benoit did not make the list because he was ordinary as far as charisma and promos.
I only considered wrestlers that I have seen enough of to judge. Therefore, legends such as Lou Thesz and Buddy Rogers, who would be included in any discussion of the all-time greats, aren't on the list. I also didn't consider wrestlers such as Harley Race, Verne Gagne, Jack Brisco, Terry Funk and others because I didn't see much of them in their primes. I have been watching wrestling for more than 35 years, but, having grown up in Baltimore, the only exposure I had to any wrestling other than WWE prior to the early 1980s was in magazines.
Back to Flair. A strong argument can be made for him being the greatest wrestler of all time, especially when factoring in longevity, drawing power and the fact that he inspired many of today's stars to pursue a career in wrestling.
One of those stars is Shawn Michaels. And while Michaels likely won't be regarded as the greatest of all time, he does get the nod over Flair as the best all-around performer that I have ever seen.
Here's my top 10:
1. Shawn Michaels: As a heel, "The Heartbreak Kid" exudes cockiness and is a superb bump-taker. As a babyface, his selling is top notch and he is both charismatic and sympathetic. No matter which role he plays, Michaels is a great worker, a master of ring psychology and strong on promos. Michaels, who has earned the moniker of "Mr. WrestleMania" for often stealing the show at WWE's signature event, incorporates mat wrestling, Lucha Libre moves and brawling into his repertoire. Perhaps the greatest testament to Michaels' ability is the fact that an array of wrestlers have had their best matches against him.
2. Ric Flair: It has often been stated that Flair could have a great match with a broomstick, and that isn't much of an exaggeration considering some of the limited wrestlers that looked like a million bucks thanks to him. Flair was among the most charismatic wrestlers ever and one of the all-time best on the microphone. No one was better than the "Nature Boy" at talking fans into the building. The only knock against him is his versatility in the ring, as he often wrestled the same match no matter who he was working with.
3. The Rock: The eyebrow-raising superstar being this high on the list might raise a lot of eyebrows, but it shouldn't. While most fans will focus on his unparalleled charisma and highly entertaining work on the microphone, Rock actually was very underrated as a worker. Was he a mat technician like Benoit or Dean Malenko? No, but he was smooth in the ring and athletic, and he had more than his share of good-to-great matches. As The Wrestling Observer's Dave Meltzer once said to me, with Rock's charismatic personality, he was much better in the ring than he really needed to be.
4. Kurt Angle: The Olympic gold medalist proved to be a fast learner after entering pro wrestling. Not only is he a tremendous mat wrestler, but he will occasionally break out a moonsault – including once off the top of a steel cage. Serious neck and spinal injuries have taken a toll, but he still as among the elite workers today. Angle also knows how to connect with the crowd, especially when he works as a heel. He has shown range as a character, as he has effectively portrayed an intense shooter and also demonstrated a flair for comedy.
5. Randy Savage: "The Macho Man" adeptly combined his speed and agility with an effective brawling style. He not only had great matches with other great workers such as Rick Steamboat – their match at WrestleMania III is considered one of the best ever – but also with lesser workers such as The Ultimate Warrior and Hulk Hogan. Savage was one of the most distinctive and colorful characters of the '80s and '90s. His promos sometimes didn't make a whole lot of sense, but they were intense and often humorous.
6. Steve Austin: He basically had two careers in one. As "Stunning Steve," a heel with flashy robes and long blond hair, Austin was regarded as a very good worker with average charisma and promo skills. When he shaved his head, grew a goatee, put on black tights and black boots and became the no-nonsense, trash-talking "Stone Cold," he became one of the biggest stars in the history of the industry. During the "Stone Cold" years, injuries to Austin's neck and knees slowed him a bit in the ring, but he still was a good worker and one of the best brawlers ever. He also developed a promo style that really connected with fans.
7. Bret Hart: "The Hitman" also was known as "The Excellence of Execution," and with good reason. Hart was very smooth in the ring and a fantastic technical wrestler. He was regarded as being bland before he received a singles push, but his somewhat understated personality eventually connected with fans and his promo skills improved. Hart was at his all-around best during his transformation he from bitter babyface to full-fledged heel in 1997.
8. Chris Jericho: Before making it big in WCW and even bigger in WWE, Jericho honed his craft all over the world, learning a variety of styles in places such as Mexico, Japan and Germany. Once a high flyer and risk-taker, Jericho began toning down his style several years ago, but he still can go and he understands ring psychology. Effective as a charismatic babyface or a smarmy, smirking heel, Jericho is adept at cutting serious promos as well as humorous ones.
9. Rick Steamboat: He was as good a worker as anybody on this list. "The Dragon" has participated in matches that are considered among the best ever, specifically against Flair and Savage. In the late '70s and '80s, Steamboat was the prototype for a babyface, and he never worked as a heel during his 18-year career. Steamboat, who had charisma but not in an over-the-top manner, was great at selling for the heels. He would have placed higher on the list if not for his average promos.
10. "Mr. Perfect" Curt Hennig: When it comes to in-ring ability, Henning wasn't perfect, but he was close. Everything he did in the ring looked smooth, and he was a great mat technician and fantastic bump-taker. Although he had been AWA champion, Henning was at his best as the cocky "Mr. Perfect" in WWE. Hennig's character wasn't as effective as a babyface, but he definitely had a strong heel persona. His promos were decent, but not anything special.