We’ve finally arrived in the top half of the countdown, meaning that we’re really getting into my own personal cream of the crop. Going forward, we have the names that have most impacted or fascinated me as a wrestling fan over the years. And I’m just going to give you a heads up and confirm that quite a few legends and Hall of Famers appear in this portion of the list. To some, it may be considered a shock or even a shredding of my credibility to not place these icons in the Top 20, but after going back an forth with the rankings for this list, I’m confident in where I’ve placed them according to my own personal taste as a fan. So without further ado, let us enter the Top 40.
#40. Ayako Hamada
For the longest time, my knowledge of Japanese wrestling was limited to Tajiri, Funaki, Kenzo Suzuki, and select visiting TNA X-Division wrestlers. So I had no idea what to expect when Ayako Hamada first debuted for TNA Wrestling in 2009. I wasn’t even sure if she was a big deal originally because even though they did promote her appearance, it was maybe a week ahead of time. Nonetheless, I tuned in for her debut against Daffney and her offense blew me away; I couldn’t wait to see more from her. She was only with TNA less than a year, but her performances there were enough to convince me to follow her back down to the Indy scene after her release. I made the right choice; one of the standout Joshi stars from SHIMMER’s history and one of many female stars walking around Japan, Hamada matches are always a blast to watch, on screen or in-person.
#39. Dean Ambrose
Ever since most of the biggest stars of the Attitude Era hung up their boots, the fans have been looking for the second coming of most of those stars. To many fans, the man WWE calls the “Lunatic Fringe” is, or at least has the potential to be, the second coming of Steve Austin, Brian Pillman, and Mick Foley all in one. After making a name for himself in promotions like CZW as the twisted Jon Moxley, he brought his unpredictable style to the big leagues and his popularity grew from there. I myself drunk the Kool-Aid as well; the guy is dynamite at promos and is a lot of fun to watch in the ring, even if his offense is a little unconventional and cartoony sometimes. Granted he does have his detractors who can’t seem to get into the Looney Tunes feel of his “Lunatic Fringe” persona, but sometimes those shenanigans are what makes wrestling fun, at least for me, so Ambrose is definitely one of my favorite competitors still going today.
#38. Brian Kendrick
I’ve said this already, but when I started watching wrestling, I was highly interested in the flashiness and athleticism of the Cruiserweight Division and one of my favorites to watch was this goofy Kurt Cobain-looking kid by the name of Brian Kendrick. He got his big break on WWE TV in a storyline where he’d do ridiculous things to try to earn a contract and since then, he’s had an astounding, entertaining career all over the world. He never held the Cruiserweight Title, but he did hold the WWE Tag Team Titles for a year, added “The” to his name, became an unofficial WWE Champion for about five minutes in 2008, became TNA X-Division Champion, buried suits, and somehow ended up getting saddled into training Eva Marie to wrestle. Not to shabby a career for a wrestler who also happens to have an even wackier alter ego named Spanky.
#37. Kofi Kingston
I feel like Kofi Kingston’s career should be at a higher plateau than it currently is. He’s had a pretty good career with WWE over the near-decade he’s been signed to the comppany, no doubt. He’s a multiple-time champion in the midcard, left fans in awe with his feats off athleticism and innovation in matches ranging from the Elimination Chamber to the Royal Rumble to the Money in the Bank Ladder Match, and he was even able to overcome being written as a phony Jamaican to remain popular with the WWE fanbase well beyond that. But realizing that he’s never once been a World Champion is a hard truth to grasp. Him and his New Day pals being cereal spokesmen and pop culture aficionados is fine and all, but imagine a WWE where his program with Randy Orton went so well that this consistently entertaining in-ring talent was rewarded with a World Title run. Transport me to that parallel universe, please.
#36. Taeler Hendrix
On the Indy scene, she previously entered to the tune of “One Girl Revolution” by SuperChick, and she does have a case to make for being able to embody such a concept. You probably wouldn’t be able to tell based solely on her run in TNA that didn’t amount to much, but behind the pure, Poison Ivy-like sex appeal of this redheaded goddess is a fiery level of charisma that can come in many forms, be it as an arrogant drama queen like her heel persona in Ohio Valley Wrestling or as a seductress with a dangerously lethal, always evolving moveset, as displayed in companies such as Queens of Combat and Ring of Honor. Her worth can come either as a main attraction or as a supporting player, as shown by her run with Jay Lethal and Truth Martini in ROH’s House of Truth stable. Once you’ve witnessed Taeler Hendrix for yourself, you will definitely never forget about her.
#35. Rey Mysterio
I thought Rey Mysterio would be in WWE forever. I never thought I’d see the day where he’d ever find the need to wrestle elsewhere. But here we are in 2016, and Rey Mysterio hasn’t been spotted on WWE television in a couple of years. Word on the cyberstreet is that they kind of had a falling out, and now Rey is free to roam the Indys. And these newer promotions are definitely lucky to be receiving that credibility boost because Rey Mysterio, though not the highest ranked Cruiserweight on this list, may be the single most influential Cruiserweight of all-time. No opponent was too big for him to find a way to take on, no obstacle could stand in the masked marvel’s way. After collecting one Cruiserweight Title after another in both WWE and WCW, he shattered expectations of smaller guys by winning WWE’s World Title numerous times. Rey jumped out the sky and continues to fly.
Glen Jacobs might be the single most adaptable guy in all of wrestling. This is a guy who has played the part of a giant Christmas tree, a dentist with rotten teeth himself, a doomed-to-fail Kevin “Diesel” Nash impostor, a masked pyromaniac with the most complicated backstory ever assembled, and a corporate stooge who wrestled in his slacks. Of all those personas, he’s been the most successful as the masked pyromaniac, and even that’s kind of inconsistent because he’s removed and re-instated the mask on and off since 2003. But even with all those character alterations, he’s still always been a great performer; he’s shown that he’s had a comedic side with stuff like Team Hell No and his moveset is pretty impressive for a guy his size and even now, when he’s pushing 50, he can still be trusted to deliver when necessary.
#33. Randy Savage
This is another legend who I don’t rank too high on my list because he was a little before my time, wasn’t around much when I started watching, and I feel like there’s more of his wrestling catalog that I need to check out. But at the same time, I feel like this list wouldn’t be complete without him being on it; he forced his way on through sheer personality. Before Bayley was grabbing eyes as the one wearing every color under the rainbow on her gear, Randy Savage was doing it with his own flamboyant get-ups. As if his outfit didn’t already make a ton of noise, he was something to behold on the mic. You couldn’t ignore his way of speaking; you had to listen. It had you hooked. The love story of he and Miss Elizabeth is still one of pro wrestling’s greatest romances and matches with Ricky Steamboat and Hulk Hogan live in infamy. So will his rap album, but that’s another story. Long live Macho Man!
Another member of WWE’s golden era of Cruiserweights, if you want to refer to it as such. This list has already seen a number of Japanese faces: Asuka, Hikaru Shida, Shinsuke Nakamura, and Ayako Hamada, to be more specific. And I might even give Funaki an honorable mention. But the highest charting wrestler from the land of the rising sun is someone who was a staple of my childhood. A former ECW star who would capture the Cruiserweight Championship on a couple of occasions in WWE. And that’s definitely something to be proud of because it’s well known that WWE doesn’t have the best history of booking Asian wrestlers, usually booking them as stereotypical punchlines. Granted, Tajiri’s WWE run does have some of those moments as well. But something that was a constant about the Japanese Buzzsaw was how much of a kick I got out of watching his take opponents heads off with his lethal kicks. And when all else fails, the green mist can always be counted on to turn the tide. And he’s still going in the ring today well into his 40’s; there’s no slowing the man down it seems.
#31. Angelina Love
The history of TNA’s stable The Beautiful People features a roster of four women. Four very blonde, very arrogant women with varying degrees of success and talent between the ropes. In my book, however, there is no question that the queen of the sorority so to speak, was Angelina Love, also known as Angel Williams. Not only was the most charismatic of the bunch, being genuinely funny more often than not as well as vicious with her verbal jabs, but she was also far and away the most skilled wrestler of the bunch. Because of this, she ended up winning the Knockouts Championship more times than her BP comrades. Sadly, most of her reigns could have been much better booked than they actually were, but that just goes to show that she deserved better than she was given from her former employers. For my money, she’s one of the best women TNA have ever made a star of.
#30. Shane McMahon
Does this count? Can I include him? There’s a reason Shane O’Mac isn’t higher on the list and that is the fact that most probably wouldn’t consider him or any other member of his powerful, ego-driven family as an actual wrestler. Just a person who occasionally stepped in the ring and got their hands dirty, and that argument certainly holds some truth to it. But let’s not forget that when he does decide to get his hands dirty, he leaves his mark on the arena and our memories by putting his body – and WWE’s prop department and bank balance – on the line to deliver moments and matches that will live in infamy. And for the most part, they do. His matches with Kurt Angle, Kane, and even his own father rank up there on my list of all-time faves and is one of the variety of reasons why to this day, I always refer to Shane as THE coolest McMahon.
#29. Randy Orton
A former member of Evolution and one of the human definitions of the word in WWE. Or at least he was for a bit; ever since developing a sinister snake-like persona in the late-2000s, he’s kind of been exactly that since, save for a few spontaneous funny moments in his early-2010s face run. But it’s still a far cry from his early days as an arrogant ladies’ man. After “killing” numerous legends, he was well on his way to becoming a modern legend him. Many World Championships later and he has to be considered one of WWE’s top names, hands-down. If that’s not enough to convince you, maybe his minor-time as an internet meme will. He may not have invented the Cutter, but he made it his own with the very popular RKO. A dangerous competitor needs a dangerous move and that one drove him straight to the top of WWE.
#28. Allysin Kay
Certain adjectives used to describe wrestlers are usually general words such as “great” or “iconic” or “amazing” or something of that sort. If you were to use any word to describe the wrestler who dubs herself the AK-47 (yes, like the gun), I think it’s safe to say that she is “cool”. Cooler than the nWo, this one. Standing at a towering (compared to most opponents) 5’10”, there is so much to admire about her. She has great ring skills, is a charismatic beast at promos, quality comic timing, and an overall magnetic swagger that has allowed her to be one of women’s wrestling’s fastest rising stars in recent years. She can be a total badass on her own or with partner’s like Sassy Stephie or Taylor Made. On top of that, she’d be the first person to tell you that she’s also classy as f*ck. She maye be stuck as one of Maria Kanellis supporting players as Sienna in TNA, but it doesn’t change the fact that if any wrestler is the epitome of “cool”, it’s this Detroit native.
At last, he is on his own. It’s kinda weird how when I first started wrestling, Christian wasn’t really one of those wrestlers I was looking out for. At the time, he seemed to always been locked into a tag team of alliance with somebody like Edge or The Un-Americans; back then, he was paired with Chris Jericho and they did pretty well together. But after winning the Intercontinental Championship in 2003 and sporting a while new look, Christian took his career to the next step and was finally given a chance to display his skills on the mic and in the ring to the point that I increasingly started to care about Captain Charisma. He showed he was witty even without Five-Second Posing partner Edge and was capable of putting on awesome (if not underrated) matches, and all that work paid off when he snagged World Heavyweight Championships in both TNA and WWE.
#26. Ric Flair
I’m probably not even allowed to make this list unless I agree to include Ric Flair. He was just Triple H’s maniacal manager when I started watching wrestling, but the commentators and The Game himself, as well as Shawn Michaels would often mention that in the past, he’d established himself as one of the greatest to lace up a pair of boots, if not the greatest. I had my doubts at first as I was uninformed on Ric Flair lore at the age of 11; but I would go on to soak up knowledge on his success in NWA, WWF, WCW, and other promotions, as well as how he was one of the most swagged out, charismatic, and over-the-top braggadocios personalities to the point of innovation and apparently even appeal beyond the ring. And after learning about such a vast and decorated legacy, whatever doubts I had faded: he IS one of the greatest. Not my #1 favorite, but I gotta give it up to the Nature Boy.
During his Hall of Fame induction speech in 2016, Steve Borden announced that he was officially retiring from the sport of pro wrestling. And honestly, it’s easy to understand why, given that they guy has been doing it since 1985 and certainly has nothing left to prove anymore. I remember hearing about Sting from his WCW days when I first started watching WWE and was so fascinated by the mystique and presence of him that I wondered when he’d finally grace a WWE ring so I can see him perform outside of just archived footage. I got the chance to when he joined TNA and was one of their biggest names for close to a decade. But the wrestling world shook when he finally stepped in a WWE ring for the first time in 2014. Sadly, he’d lose his only WrestleMania match to Triple H and lose his only WWE Championship match to Seth Rollins, but that one loss luckily won’t define his career, which will remain legendary regardless of where he spent his time.
#24. Trish Stratus
When I was a kid, there was no bigger woman in all of WWE than Trish Stratus. Oh, the other women definitely got spotlight; but as far as being the female face in the promotion, someone who would get it done both in the ring and on the set of a photoshoot, Trish Stratus was as big a name as you could possibly get. And that’s saying something for a woman who originally came in as a bikini model with no previous wrestling training; she morphed into a bona-fide fighter. By the end of her career, she found herself being the most decorated woman in WWE history with a record-setting seven Women’s Championships to her name, as well as a brief Hardcore Title run, four-Babe of the Year wins, multiple WWE Divas Magazine covers, and even a phenomenal main event RAW match with Lita. Try as hard as they might (and trust me, they have), there will honestly never be another Trish Stratus.
#23. Daniel Bryan
Talk about a wrestler who always had the odds stacked against him; Bryan Danielson may have been a beloved submission specialist on the indy scene, but when he stepped into a WWE ring for the first time, it seemed like they didn’t want people to know that he secretly might have been the best pound-for-pound pro wrestler in the world. We found out for ourselves through his performances that he wasn’t quite the nerd they saw him as; in fact, not only could he tell stories effectively and wrestle great matches night in and night out, but he was even funnier and more charismatic than originally thought too as stuff like Team Hell No proved. Even though he didn’t have the look McMahon favored (and has a strange obsession with bears), he had all other tools to get the fans on his side. And he did, and reaped the rewards of many World Titles and a chorus of “Yes!” chants.
#22. Melina Perez
Melina was absolutely perfect for the wrestling business; especially WWE, the company she’s most famous for being in. Being of Mexican descent, she obviously had the exotic, attention-grabbing looks. But her attributes didn’t end there as she also possessed something that most other woman in WWE didn’t have at the time: fire and confidence on the mic. As a pimp-slapping villain, she became one of the most entertaining people on the entire roster. Even as face, she was fun to watch as her agile moveset and uncanny flexibility made for a lot of creative options in the ring, whether for the benefit of her or the opponent. But of course a conversation on Perez is not complete without mention the entrance to end all entrances. Her entrance with Mercury and Nitro was already impressive with the paparazzi; but Melina’s splits were the star of the show. Other wrestlers may have imitated it, but Melina was the master of it. In fact, she even injected it into her finisher, which is one of my favorite moves. Her career was one filled with titles, and even after leaving it behind, the A-List Diva E always keeps fans up to date on what she has up her sleeve.
#21. John Cena
The wrestler that some love to hate and others simply love. Since debuting on their main roster in 2002, John Cena has been a visible face in the world of pro wrestling, his presence getting to the point of extending outside the ring to television, film, music and even award show hosting work. After dropping the highly entertaining rapper gimmick that earned him so much unlikely crowd support, he has become a poster boy in every sense of the word, but contrary to what his detractors say, he’s no slouch and works just as hard as anyone else who steps into the ring. A 15-time World Champion with a catalog of memorable matches and moments to look back on, I’ve never been able to jump on the John Cena hate wagon. If anything, there’s just as much to admire about the guy than there is to despise. Not sure if this’ll be a popular choice or not, but Cena earns a place on my list. Pretty high, too.