SPOTLIGHTED PODCAST ALERT (YOUR ARTICLE BEGINS A FEW INCHES DOWN)...
To some, the idea of a Greatest Wrestler Ever list is a ludicrous and headache-inducing exercise. There is the very fair argument that wrestling has evolved in both positive & negative ways over the years and the different environments and eras make ranking and comparisons impossible. Then you have another argument which views wrestling purely as a star driven business where objectively your greatest ever are the ones that drew the most money i.e. your Austin’s, Hogan’s, Rikidozan’s etc and that thinking about it any deeper than that is futile.
I understand folks having any of the above stances. However for many fans of wrestling, or any other entertainment medium be it sports, movies or musical artists – the act of simply making a list can provide hours of fun and mental engagement. Some might take their opinions very seriously; others might just do it for the fun. I remember when I was a kid, bored in school and I’d flick to the back of my copy book and starting drawing up lists for different soccer categories. My Euro 96 dream team, my Serie A dream team, my top 20 strikers etc. etc. Just the other night after finishing all of The Wire for the second time, I was lying in bed ranking my top TV shows ever when I should have been asleep.
As my wrestling fandom evolved over the years and as I got more into it with the internet and newsletters, I was drawn to things like year-end awards, MOTY lists and so on. In 2006 the fan forum SmarksChoice ran a big Greatest Wrestler Ever poll with many participants of notable message boards involved. Ten years later a large number of those who participated got together to run it back again. Housed at the ProWrestlingOnly message board, it was bigger and better this time around and had a lot more participation. It caught my eye at an early stage and I engaged in a whole bunch of “research projects” throughout 2015 to fill gaps in my wrestling watching history, and to get myself ready to submit a well thought out top 100 list in 2016. That was the year Akira Hokoto became one of my favourite wrestlers ever, and without the project that may not have ever happened. Similarly I realised how amazing Tatsumi Fujinami vs. Riki Choshu was in the early 80s in one Japanese promotion while Genichiro Tenryu and Jumbo Tsuruta were forming a classic rivalry in the other.
Five years later, and we found ourselves in a worldwide pandemic with all kinds of interruption to modern wrestling. What better time to look at doing another GWE list, I thought to myself. I spent the guts of last year digging into old wrestling, and continued that into 2021. It was a blast to go from watching Ron Garvin and Greg Valentine beating the tar out of one another to seeing a young Io Shirai in her early years at Stardom – and everything in between. Did I get to watch everything I wanted to? No of course not. One thing you’ll learn engaging in a project like this is that there’s ALWAYS more wrestling for you to watch. Nobody’s seen it all. That said, I think I’ve seen a heck of a lot, and more than enough to put together a pretty comprehensive list.
The way I approach my rankings is with the a few key codes/criteria.
•A level playing field. I keep this strictly bell to bell performance. Unfortunately I’m just limited to one language, so I don’t let promos come into this because if I did it would change the dynamics too much when trying to compare a Terry Funk to a Jun Akiyama. I don’t understand Japanese or Spanish, so I can’t grade the wrestlers from Japan and Mexico on their promos. Similarly, things like executing angles outside of matches, backstage skits etc – none of that plays into it for me.
•I don’t really count being a top star in the business for this. If you’re a top star and you routinely deliver in big show, big match situations with the eyes of the world on you then absolutely that helps your cause. However a big match situation for some might be in a stadium on worldwide PPV, and for another wrestler it might be a Korakuen Hall main event.
•Longevity. This absolutely plays a huge role. Those who were able to prove themselves as great across multiple decades get a lot of marks from me.
•Versatility. If you can wrestle different styles, against different types of wrestlers and you excel in both singles and tag settings, that will count for a lot.
•Bell to bell doesn’t just mean athletic performance in the ring. Having charisma, having an aura, that all plays a part. Also if you’re in a blood feud and you can convey that story into your match – or any story for that matter – then that will serve you well.
•Sheer volume of great matches. This counts for a lot with me and it’s probably the single thing which favours the modern performers the most. Having great matches, which build to dramatic, explosive conclusions is a much bigger part of the business than it was in previous eras. The performers are much more motivated to deliver the goods in that regard than ever before. I would say this has been the case more and more since about 2002, although for my personal taste I think we’ve been seeing a bit of a dip since 2016/2017 – as I find myself less moved by where things have been going stylistically recently.
There’s plenty more to it going through my mind than that, but I don’t want to bore anyone!
My final list that I settled on saw my 2016 no. 1 Kenta Kobashi dethroned by the wrestler that plays to my sensibilities as a fan more than any other before him including the great Kobashi. He’s gained more attention in recent years as a New Japan star, but to me Shingo Takagi has been one of the best in the world for nearly 15 years, and I’m comfortable now in 2021 calling him The Greatest Wrestler Ever.
|10||Jushin Thunder Liger|
|22||Big Van Vader|
|39||Zack Sabre Jr.|
|91||El Hijo Del Santo|
One of the most fun things about this project was getting to share it with others who came along for the journey. My great friends Case Lowe and Mike Spears (hosts of the tremendous Open The Voice Gate podcast) joined me on multiple occasions here on PW Torch VIP audio as we discussed our research, and the great matches we’d been watching. You can check out the archives of ProWres Paradise to find those episodes including a mammoth three-part GWE wrap up series which went nearly 8 hours!
Case and Mike were among a group of us (nine in total) who combined our lists to come up with a consensus ranking which you’ll see below. As you can see it boasts an incredibly eclectic list of wrestlers across all regions and eras. I asked the contributors to share with me any thoughts they had about their GWE experience.
“I don’t think I’ve ranked anything since I was ranking favourite albums as a teenager, but putting together my GWE list was a blast. It allowed me to go back and watch some 90s Joshi that I hadn’t seen in ages, and 80s US territories which I have lots of blind spots in. Funnily enough, the top 20 or so was the easiest to rank but it got a lot harder from there. And like many others, I realized I had forgotten a wrestler after submitting it and realized that I didn’t list Minoru Tanaka, which Alan rightly castigated everyone else for not including in their lists on the podcast accompaniment to the GWE. But my biggest takeaway is that I cant wait until 2026.”
– Gerard Di Trolio, master of AJPW coverage over at Voices Of Wrestling
“As the pandemic made current wrestling more and more difficult to consume, the GWE helped remind me why I love pro wrestling in the first place. The deep dives on promotions and wrestlers was both a learning experience and a trip down memory lane. This project has shown me that there is always more to watch, more wrestlers to discover, and that even if you’ve been watching for decades, someone you may not have heard of could end up a new favorite.”
– Jamie Sessions, @JamieSessions
“I was aware of the Greatest Wrestler Ever project in 2016. It seemed somewhat overwhelming and somewhat impenetrable for being something so simple on the surface: Rank your top one hundred wrestlers of all-time. I stayed away from it then. When the list came out, I somewhat went “Okay well I guess that makes sense for them” and I went along my way. Time passed and late last year on an episode of Open The Voice Gate’s Dragon Gate USA retrospective Alan and Case talked about it, asked me to join them with it. Either peer pressure or the itchiness of wanting another project to fill my spare time worked and I agreed.
I never came into the project wanting to reinvent the wheel, I just wanted to take a look at wrestling as a whole and kind of figure out what it meant to me. Through the months, I got to fill in some glaring blanks in my wrestling viewing, talk a lot with some of my favorite people, and came back to one thought I had when I started the exercise: Terry Funk, in my opinion, is the greatest wrestler to ever live. And I’m glad I got to spend time with friends confirming that. I probably won’t go heavy on research and reassessment until 2024 or 2025, but I’m already excited about how things may change for 2026’s edition of the Greatest Wrestler Ever project.”
– Mike Spears, @fujiiheya, co-host of the Open The Voice Gate and Everything Elite podcasts
“Greatest Wrestler Ever lists are intensely personal as well as inclusive providing an excellent standard of where overall pro wrestling discourse amongst hardcore fans currently stands. My decision to curate a GWE list every year has provided a “moment in time” totem pole for where my fandom is each solitary year. That creates a list every year that I don’t feel is perfect but is more reactionary to what I have been watching and my perpetual quest to consume wrestling history. The overall cumulative list from 2021 showed the great strides of individuals such as Will Ospreay and Kenny Omega compared to their 2016 results. Speculation and anticipation are rampant on who will make a splash debut in the 2026 version of GWE. As for me, 2021 will just serve as another year to see where my journey as a wrestling fan navigated me towards.”
– Chad Campbell, @bigboysplaywcw, co-host of Wrestling War Zone at North South Podcast Connection
“2021’s Greatest Wrestler Ever project is the most amount of fun I’ve ever had working on something wrestling-related. The 2016 incarnation of the project, hosted on the Pro Wrestling Only forum, exposed me to various wrestlers and promotions that I had never had the time or energy to view before. Five years ago, I was getting a taste of Puerto Rico, 80s New Japan, and various territories in America. I adored the communal aspect of the project, even when things got heated. This time around, having Alan and Mike Spears by my side (literally my two favorite people to talk wrestling with), provided me with such joy and entertainment. I’m proud of the audio that we did and I’m always delighted to hear that people enjoyed these shows.
There will always be holes in my viewing. There’s no way to watch everything and I accept that as a reality of this project. I’m still far too ignorant in joshi and lucha, entirely unfamiliar with French wrestling from the 60s, and largely uninterested in “boom period” American wrestling. My ballot, however, shows a wide array of styles, promotions, and eras that I simply adore.
It has been hard to love wrestling in its current presentation. COVID-19 is obviously the biggest factor, but I continue to worry that a majority of people in wrestling have lost the plot. The Greatest Wrestler Ever Project constantly reminded me why I love wrestling.
That being said, this project shouldn’t act as an injection of nostalgia that keeps you grounded in your comfort zone. Both incarnations of this project have pushed me outside of my normal viewing habits and in the end, I have been rewarded by the results.
Kenta Kobashi is the greatest wrestler to ever lace up a pair of boots, the core Dragongate roster is the greatest collection of talent in the history of wrestling, and everything that we value and appreciate now could be drastically different in five years. Talk to you all then.”
– Case Lowe, @_InYourCase, co-host of Open The Voice Gate and Dragongate reviewer at Voices Of Wrestling
Our final cumulative listing, with all 247 wrestlers who received at least one vote. If you’re reading this and you have your own top 100, or even a top 10, we’d love to see it! Let us know on Twitter at @Alan4L and @pwtorch.
|17||Rey Mysterio Jr||636|
|32||El Hijo del Santo||477|
|70||Zack Sabre Jr||234|
|182||Milano Collection AT||31|
|183||Dr Wagner Jr||31|
|205||Kevin Von Erich||17|
|208||Dory Funk Jr.||16|
|226||Fujita Jr Hayato||6|
|229||Too Cold Scorpio||5|
|241||Andre the Giant||2|
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