Like many other fans, I enjoy putting WTF wrestling moments on my Instagram story as I’m watching it and responding to my friend’s own clips. Recently, I’d sent a photo of THE best wrestler in the world today to a friend who is a WWE fan and the response dumbfounded me. How could they not know one of the most talked about names in pop culture circles? It dawned on me, while wrestling is once again going from guilty pleasure to culture staple, as with comics, it still needs fans to evangelize beyond the world of WWE. With the advent of the internet and the pipe bomb of CM Punk opened the ears of WWE fans to wrestling all over the globe. New Japan, Stardom, Wrestle Circus, Lucha Underground, Pro Wrestling Guerrilla, Ring of Honor all these companies are giving a platform to men and women brave enough to chase their square circle dreams. So here are the best wrestlers male and female across ALL of wrestling.
10. Braun Strowman
Admit it, when the 7ft monster Braun Strowman appeared as the muscle of the Wyatt family you rolled your eyes at the thought of looking at another Giant Gonzalez or Great Khali. While Strowman started out as most ‘monsters” do in WWE, he’s gotten himself over by sheer feats of athleticism no one with this tyrannosaurus sized frame could do. The company has also allowed him to take it one step further by letting him show a hint of charisma. While he’s not the verbal sparrer The Rock was, he doesn’t solely take a cheap way out by monster grunting all the time. Just watch his Ride Along episode with Alexa Bliss on WWE Network and his current program with Kevin Owens on RAW. Also, I think the scariest thing about Strowman was the impression he did when knocking on Kevin Owens in the porta potty. By the time his career is over, he could go down as the best giant to ever be in WWE.
9. Viper/Piper Niven
She competed in WWE’s Mae Young Classic tournament as Piper Niven but the rest of the wrestling world knows her as Viper. “The Megaton Barbie” has some devastating ring work and is capable of putting on a great match with even the most green of dance partners. She’s walking cannonballing proof that beauty isn’t a body type, it’s a work ethic. Now you could argue Nia Jaxx is doing the same on RAW, but what puts Viper on the list over Nia is her not being hindered in the same way by lazy WWE writing. I’m a fan of Nia Jaxx but in the span of a week, Nia went from an anti-bullying message against a cheerleader mean girl to straight up bullying Ronda Rousey, doing constant turns kind of makes Nia the new Big Show. Viper might be a big bad heel girl in Stardom, the Japanese women’s wrestling promotion, but her messaging doesn’t just turn on a dime. It only happens through natural storytelling. Confidence, athleticism, and the willingness to take the hardest hits in the ring are all I want in a female wrestler and this girl has it in spades.
8. Will Ospreay
The British aerial assassin is like watching Todd McFarlane’s version of Spider-Man come to life. Wrestling all over Japan and Europe in promotions like Progress and New Japan, Ospreay has built a reputation of redefining high flying moves we’ve seen hundreds of times before. He ups the ante on the shooting star press by adding a corkscrew to it and Osprey can’t even do a simple jump out of the ring without adding some showmanship as he plancha’s an opponent and shift’s his body in mid-air at the same time. He’s also constantly evolving as a wrestler and mixing in pop culture for relevance; after Infinity War came out, the grappling brit added a twisting powerslam he dubbed “Stormbreaker” to his arsenal. What sets Ospreay apart from the crop of high-flying wrestlers is his technical gifts, recently he put on a classic match for the IWGP Jr. Heavyweight title with Hiromu Takahashi and probably left his feet less times than any match he’s had before. Outside of the number one pick on this list, Will Ospreay might be the most fun wrestler to watch.
7. Bullet Club (Marty Scurll, Hangman Page, The Young Bucks, Chase Owens, Yujiro, Bad Luck Fale, Guerrillas of Destiny, Cody Rhodes, Kenny Omega)
I’m cheating by putting the entire group in one spot as just about each man, on their own, could occupy a spot on the list. There’s a good reason for the Bullet Club name going in as one. You haven’t been to any convention or Hot Topic without running into the skull and AK-47’s of the Bullet Club logo on a T-shirt. It’s one of the longest-running factions of modern wrestling. Starting with Finn Balor during his run in New Japan and including the likes of A.J Styles among its alumni, the Bullet Club has transcended promotions and wrestling itself to become part of pop culture. It’s evolved from a simple group of cool bad guys to tell stories that are changing the landscape of sports. Cody and The Young Bucks are putting on their own independent wrestling show in Chicago on September 1st that’s being talked about as the “WrestleMania of the Indies”. All In has already sold out its 10k seat venue and is selling out every meet-and-greet opportunity that goes up. People are traveling from all over to be part of Cody and The Bucks brain child. It took a lot of work by Matt and Nick Jackson (Young Bucks) to get there. The Young Bucks put themselves into a spotlight by building one of the most popular YouTube brands around, “Being The Elite”. A YouTube channel that’s allowed them to virtually print money in merchandise that never seems to run out yet at times can be hard to find. Take for instance being the first independent wrestlers to get the Funko Pop treatment. I saw people waiting for UPS deliveries to arrive at a local Hot Topic just to get their hands on Funkos. In terms of actual wrestling, where past factions like D-X and the Nation of Domination hit the wall where they can’t go forward as a group, Bullet Club finds new stories to tell. Take the recent inner group war that started at New Japan’s G1 in San Francisco where Omega and his friends are now at war with the Guerilla’s and Fale over the future of Bullet Club. It’s unheard of how long this can keep going. Also if you watched the latest episode of Being The Elite, what the f*** is Haku’s problem??
6. Sami Callahan
You might remember him from his days in NXT as hacker/jobber Solomon Crowe. It was an awful gimmick but like Hydra did under SHIELD, Callahan was growing under the nose of WWE. Learning how to read crowds, cause the right controversies, and what not to do in the business; Sami Callahan is now one of the best unwavering bad guys in the industry today working promotions like Impact Wrestling and Lucha Underground. He’s evolved into –if Cobra Commander and Negan had a wrestling baby– and took the accidental breaking of Impact Wrestling’s Eddie Edwards orbital socket and turned it into money for him and Edwards. Sure calling yourself “The Draw” is typical wrestling bombast but Callahan took everything he learned and turned himself into one of the few performers giving other wrestlers work as he runs a breakfast wrestling show during WrestleMania weekend. It even got sponsored by IHOP…you know before we started hating IHOP for being liars.
5. Charlotte Flair
The daughter of wrestling legend Ric Flair, Charlotte has quickly pulled herself out of the far-reaching shadow of her father’s legend. She’s the first woman to compete in a Hell In The Cell match, falls count anywhere, and WWE allowed her to end the nearly 2-year undefeated streak of Japanese superstar Asuka. On top of her in-ring accomplishments, Charlotte Flair is a best-selling author with her memoir Second Nature. Her stories of family tragedy and triumph are inspirational for young girls. WWE certainly sees this as they’ve positioned her as the face of its progress in women’s wrestling. She’s even recently been part of ESPN’s body issue alongside athletes from every major sport. Charlotte Flair wasn’t given her spot because of her looks, if you’ve watched her matches you know she puts that magazine body on the line each time she gets in the ring. You’re not likely to see a more pure and crazy moonsault from the top rope to the outside of the ring from any woman athlete in this generation.
4. Dalton Castle
Without a doubt, my favorite wrestler on this list and who I consider my spirit animal. Dalton Castle is the living embodiment of the word confidence. During a lead-up promo to his title match with Cody Rhodes in Ring of Honor, he spouted a line that defines him as a performer and a wrestler, “This isn’t something I like to do anymore, this is what I do and I’m pretty damn good at it.” In the ring, he’s as technical as an Olympic wrestler while knowing where to put in that right pinch of spice. Castle can probably out German suplex Brock Lesnar if given the chance and he’s got the best finishers to watch today; a spinning waterwheel facebuster he calls the Bang-a-Rang and an armbar submission named “The Julie Newmar”. Not kidding, it’s actually called the Julie Newmar. The oozing of charisma and mystique, the commanding of his boys, even his sparkly shoes and microphone aren’t simply for the sake of creating a flamboyant character. An average performer using those gimmicks could be a flag bearer at best, but Castle is a fire that tells you why fit in when you can stand out? In the age of agreement for the sake of argument, Dalton Castle dares you to create your own normal.
Plus…if a more grand entrance exists in professional wrestling, I haven’t seen it.
3. Johnny Gargano
To some, Johnny Wrestling might have come out of nowhere to become one of the biggest names in NXT, but he’s wrestled all over the globe with guys like Kevin Owens, Adam Cole, Austin Aries, and more. Gargano is something rare in the industry today; a true babyface that fans want to get behind. In his NXT run, Johnny Wrestling never has to play the part of cool heel to get cheered by the crowd. Sure he’s an underdog in the same way Daniel Bryan is but remember Bryan was playing the heel during his first title run and the audience didn’t truly get him over until it wanted justice for the 15-second loss to Sheamus at WrestleMania. Gargano is appreciated by true wrestling audiences as a heroic defender of the weak even if that means he’s just defending himself. I can’t think of any wrestler that’s had more “Match of the year” showings at WWE level than Johnny Gargano. From the tag team title matches between DIY and The Revival to his edge of your seat encounters with Tomaso Ciampa, Gargano is a “Best Match” machine. Within the next five years, Johnny Gargano will headline a WrestleMania.
2. AJ Styles
He’s 41 years old and having better matches than wrestlers half his age. What’s more impressive is that he’s doing it in the confines of the WWE machine, a system that’s been known to hinder the potential of performers it brings in from other companies. He’s managed to have some of the best matches of John Cena’s career when the two battled at multiple Pay Per Views. Even being given the lemons of having to work WWE’s biggest show with Shane McMahon, instead of a program for a title, didn’t stop him from stealing the show that night in Dallas. In the ring, Styles doesn’t do the complete aerial move set he did during his tenure in TNA yet he’s compensated by turning simple technical wrestling like the calf stretch into excitement by rolling through his opponents into the calf crusher. Styles is also one of the few remaining wrestlers that have moves which are uniquely his even when done by others. Whenever you see wrestlers do a “styles clash” in other promotions announcers still call it the styles clash. What’s most impressive about AJ Styles in WWE today is he was the guy who was always supposed to headline WrestleMania but you started to fear it might never happen. It’s the story of a true wrestler getting the spot he earned a long time ago. Through a string of incredible matches combined with the crowd of his longtime followers and new WWE fans getting behind him; Styles created an undeniable momentum and its why WWE has kept the title on him this long. If you think I didn’t see AJ coming years ago…
1. Kenny Omega
Yes, technically he’s on this list twice. But consider what he has done to the industry.
For years, wrestling’s ceiling was defined by two words, “five stars”. It was the highest rating any match could get in a score system established by wrestling authority Dave Meltzer. In one match, at New Japan’s WrestleKingdom event, Kenny Omega and champion Kazuchika Okada nearly killed each other to create something that made wrestling fans –up in the states at 3am to watch it live– wake their friends by sending you gotta see this videos to their phones. Alongside Punk’s infamous pipe bomb, Omega/Okada 1 became the second Infinity Stone of wrestling. The thing that could change the world. In fact, it changed things by being the first ever rating system breaking six-star match.
It didn’t stop there, Omega continued the mission by having a seven-star rematch with Okada and later that year ambassadored New Japan Pro Wrestling to American audiences with the company’s first ever live show in the states where Omega became the inaugural IWGP United States Champion.
Kenny Omega’s accomplishments don’t happen without foundation in incredible wrestling ability. He’s a joy to watch in the ring using an explosive work ethic that produces incredible feats of strength a guy his size should not be able to do. You round that out with a knee strike that’s better than Nakamura and the uncanny ability of Shawn Michaels to tell stories in the ring, it adds up to one hell of a wrestler.
What makes Omega the true top of the industry is he isn’t just taking part in it, he’s shaping it. At this year’s Wrestle Kingdom he battled Chris Jericho, a performer so associated with WWE it created that same story magic of when Scott Hall and Kevin Nash first appeared on WCW television. You thought it was a legit invasion. In 2018, Omega merged his love of fighting games with his day job by bringing a full-sized wrestling show to one of the most popular eSports tournaments in the country, CEO in Florida. He’s even caused WWE to break their, other companies don’t exist, policies. Back in June at E3, Omega’s Street Fighter feud with WWE’s Xavier Woods was settled at Capcom’s booth in a 3-on-3 battle between New Day and The Elite. It’s one of the most entertaining pseudo kayfabe things to watch as the teams trade verbal jabs and cause some pepper drama. What truly made you say wow was seeing WWE acknowledge the event on their website and social, even profiling Omega and The Young Bucks. For a company that avoids giving other promotions publicity at all costs, it was practically selling merchandise for The Young Bucks. Kenny Omega is using his emerging place in pop culture to change the conceptions of wrestling, giving it a potential to grow even bigger than it did in the Attitude Era.
So happy late birthday to my pal, Erica. I give you the gift that keeps on giving, the gift of Kenny Omega matches. I know there are a lot of wrestlers who could have easily been on the list but aren’t. A case could easily be made for Seth Rollins, Finn Balor, Sasha Banks, Okada, Tetsuya Naito, Bea Priestley, Rey Mysterio, Tessa Blanchard, Asuka and loads of others. To only pick ten was truly a grind, so if any of you want to yell some at me during SDCC at the WWE panel or Lucha Underground appearances feel free.