In Search of Pro Wrestling’s True GOAT

It’s time. No more of this wishy-washy “one of the greatest” business. Let’s figure out pro wrestling’s best ever, the legit Greatest of All Time, the one true king or queen, the absolute no. 1.

No problem. All we have to do is compare greatness in a medium that is part sport, part art, and wholly subjective. We just have to take into account in-ring performance and charisma for which have no real unit of measurement.

You see, wrestling is enjoyed via the heart and the gut. You love a match because it makes you feel a certain way, be it energized or amazed, tearful or in awe. Something in the air clicks. There’s an intangible energy that pulses as the wrestlers do their thing. You may know a great match when you see it, but struggle to articulate why it’s so special.

So, there’s no surprise that if you ask five random wrestling fans who is the greatest of the great, you are bound to get five different answers. Someone will inevitably say Shawn Michaels. You may get a Manami Toyota nod, a Kazuchika Okada mention, and someone sure as all hell will say that The Rock is the only right answer.

Sometimes I’m jealous of the folks analyzing basketball, for instance. In other worlds, GOAT crowning is a simpler task.

In sports, you have statistics, advanced or otherwise, to help compare one great versus another. You can comfortably call Michael Jordan the NBA’s best ever thanks to those helpful numbers. His Airness ranks No. 1 in all-time PER (player efficiency rating), points per game, and has won more Finals MVP awards than anyone else. (Thank you, Basketball Reference!)

It’s good talk radio fodder to try and crown LeBron James as the GOAT but come on. The numbers point to Jordan.

Competitions are quantifiable, too. Joey Chestnut has a firm hold on the GOAT position in the hot dog eating frontier. He has won the Nathan’s Hot Dog Contest 13 times and just broke his own world record by downing 75 wieners in 10 minutes. Chestnut is far and away the best at what he does. Just count up the dogs.

Wrestling shares a lot more in common with film and visual art than sports and eating competitions, especially when it comes to evaluating – as it comes from a personal place. Some folks will tell you Undertaker was the best to ever lace up a pair of boots. Some will tell you The Deadman sucked.

And the numbers you have to work with are skewed by the worked nature of the business. The process of winning a championship includes politics and behind-the-scene goings on. Wrestling is so nuts that Jeff Jarrett won double-digit world titles and Roddy Piper won zero.

Still, we will work with what we have, starting with wrestling’s annual awards. Those are things we can count. Sounds promising.

Hard Look at the Hardware

Pro Wrestling Illustrated and Wrestling Observer Newsletter have both named the year’s top wrestler since 1972 and 1980 (h/t Indeed Wrestling) respectively. These are similar to the MVP award in sports. Surely, tallying these up will give us some solid insight.

PWI has given the Wrestler of the Year to AJ Styles and Steve Austin three times each. Ric Flair has both men beat with six WOTY prizes on his own.

The WON has also given Flair his roses over the years. The Nature Boy has won their version of the Wrestler of the Year award eight times and the annual prize is now named after him and Lou Thesz.  

No one else is even close.

Let’s consider the Most Outstanding Wrestler award from the Observer, as well. While the WOTY is more about overall success, the outstanding side of the coin zeroes in on a wrestler’s in-ring production. That’s pretty dang vital to figuring out who is best in a business where a good chunk of it is conducted in the ring.

Including this award gets Daniel Bryan and Mitsuharu Misawa in the conversation, but Flair only gains ground. The Dirtiest Player in the Game also won two Most Outstanding awards.

Total Wrestler of the Year (PWI), WON Wrestler of the Year (WON) Most Outstanding Wrestler (WON) awards:

  • Ric Flair 16
  • AJ Styles 7
  • Daniel Bryan 5
  • Mitsuharu Misawa 5

There you have it; Flair is the best. End of article. Press submit.

Hold on. You have to consider the limitations of these awards. For one, neither publication’s end-of-year awards cover 1971 or before. Who knows how many Wrestler of the Year awards Jim Londos would have amassed in the ’30s and ‘40s.

Pro Wrestling Illustrated also focuses heavy on American wrestling. No one from Japan or Mexico has ever one WOTY, Rookie of the Year, or any of the other individual prizes.

It seems like we’re going to need to dig into some other available data.

Numbers Don’t Lie?

What if we figure out who ranks highest in terms of their Cagematch rating? The super informative site has an option where fans can rate wrestlers out of 10. That should provide a measure of popularity and perceived success.

Let’s start with Mr. Wrestler of the Year. Flair has a 9.1 rating. Poking around reveals that Daniel Bryan sits at 9.45 and Shawn Michaels is rated 9.61.

None of these fellas, however, are in the top 5 of Cagematch’s Top 100 with at least 50 votes:

  1. Kenta Kobashi (9.73)
  2. Mitsharu Misawa (9.72)
  3. Manami Toyota (9.70)
  4. Kazuchika Okada (9.69)
  5. Toshiaki Kawada (9.68)

Kobashi feels like a good pick for wrestling’s GOAT. He was a top-echelon performer who put on countless classic matches for both All Japan and Pro Wrestling NOAH. 20 times over he won a Match of the Year award from the Observer, Nikkan Sports, or Tokyo Sports.

Then again, he is only ahead of his sometimes tag partner, sometimes archrival Misawa by the tiniest margin here. A few votes here and there and suddenly Misawa is the Cagematch king.

Misawa has a strong claim to the best-ever title himself.

He was one of half of standout, award-winning tag teams with both Kobashi and Kawada. His mantle is overflowing with accolades from the Wrestling Observer Newsletter including five Match of the Year, Tag Team of the Year and two Feud of the Year awards. Add that to the aforementioned WOTYs and you have one hell of a resume.

There’s a reason Misawa has a separate Wikipedia page for just his championships and accomplishments.

Plus, if you pull up the all-time highest-rated matches on Cagematch, Misawa’s name is plastered all over the place. He and Kobashi occupy the top spot with their March 1, 2003 bout coming in at 9.82.

Four of the top six and seven of the top 20 matches involved Mr. Emerald Flowsion.

Ok, guys. We’ve done it. We have our GOAT. Someone ask Tiger Driver to put out a T-shirt to mark the occasion.

Wait. I’m feeling a bit iffy about the weight of these ratings. They are the opinions of a specific subset of fan. These folks can be fickle.

For Christ’s sake, somebody gave Eddie Guerrero a 2.0 rating. What are we even doing here?

What if we instead heard from the pros themselves? Who do the greatest wrestlers think is the greatest?

Anecdotal Evidence

Kurt Angle sure as hell knows wrestling. Let’s see what the Olympian thinks.

Earlier this year on his podcast, Angle (h/t Wrestling Inc) said, “I believe that he’s the greatest wrestler of all time” in reference to Bret Hart.

CM Punk called Bret Hart “the best ever” in a recent tweet:

Great pick, Mr. Angle and Mr. Punk. Hart was the crispest, most precise in-ring performer ever. The Hitman had terrific matches with everyone from Mr. Perfect to Kevin Nash while also leading green-as-grass guys like Tom Magee to passable performances.

I think we’re done here.

I’m sure super successful stars Hulk Hogan and Steve Austin would concur that Hart is the GOAT and that his “best there ever was” refrain rang true. Let’s just make sure.

Hogan told India Today: “The guy who is my hero, and who I think is the greatest wrestler of all time, that’s Ric Flair.” On Busted Open Radio (h/t Sport World News), Austin said, “Hulk Hogan was an exceptional worker and had a tremendous ability to grab the attention of the viewers. However, when it comes to ringing that bell, my favorite is undoubtedly Nature Boy Ric Flair.”

Shoot. We’re back to Flair. I can live with that. Big-time charisma. Impressive longevity. Success in multiple eras.

Before we wrap, though, I want to hear what Eddie Kingston has to say. As a true student of the game, as an 18-year veteran, that dude knows his stuff.

Kingston agrees with Cagematch, apparently:

Kobashi the king, so says the Mad King. I like the sound of that.

But I feel like for such a momentous decision we need more data. Just to make sure.

Other Opinions

To make things simple, I created a Google Form with one question: “Who is the greatest pro wrestler ever?” I didn’t give any criteria to consider. Folks just had to interpret the question however they chose to and commit to an answer.  

This should settle it. Plenty of intelligent fans and wrestlers follow me on Twitter.

Hmm. Some familiar names pop up in the results, but as of this writing, the goat-faced one himself leads the charge:

  • Daniel Bryan (11.5%)
  • Bret Hart (8.2%)
  • Terry Funk (8.2%)
  • Shawn Michaels (8.2%)
  • Ric Flair (4.9 %)

If you call Bryan the greatest, you have ample ammo for your argument.

You can point to the fact that Bryan has won the Observer’s Best Technical Wrestler award a record nine times. You can throw in his collection of Pro Wrestling Illustrated awards (Wrestler of the Year, Comeback of the Year, Inspirational Wrestler of the Year, Match of the Year, Most Popular Wrestler, Feud of the Year).

This video essay from Joseph Montecillo is pretty dang convincing, too:

But sometimes we get caught up in a moment; we have our perspective warped by recency bias. It’s when we compare eras, the generational talents from various generations, that we can really get to the truth.

How does Bryan fare when columnists and outlets put together all-time lists? Let’s look at who landed atop nine different greatest wrestler ever rankings:

That was a mistake. It’s only muddied things further. Sure, Flair’s name comes up again, validating his supporters even more, but Pro Wrestling Torch’s answer threw me a curveball.

PWTorch’s Top 100 project is more than your standard ranking. It is built on extensive research, outside opinions, an attempt to look at the art of wrestling as scientifically as possible. Shingo’s name emerging from that process makes you at least mull over the thought that the current IWGP heavyweight champ might be the best we’ve ever seen.

Then again, maybe wrestling’s GOAT is someone we haven’t seen.

In The Top Pro Wrestlers of All Time by John F. Molinaro, Lou Thesz got the No. 1 spot. A good number of today’s fans have seen little or none of the great technician.

What of George Hackenschmidt, Frank Gotch, Jim Londos, Ed “Strangler” Lewis? They all predate the current wrestling publications and The writers tasked with making lists for Sports Illustrated or Complex probably didn’t see those fellows in action.

Lucha Libre is always underrepresented in these discussions, as well.

The above lists barely touch on the biggest and best stars of Mexico. American writer often hyper-focus on the American wrestlers leaving men like El Santo and Negro Casas out in the cold.

To properly determine the true preeminent pro wrestler, we are all going to need to study up on lucha. Let’s put this discussion on pause while I watch decades worth of Mexican wrestling and read about the cultural impact of the top stars.

I’m going to also need to travel back to the beginning of the 20th century while I’m at it to get a good look at the pioneers of the business. It’ll be good to see Hackenschmidt’s technique for myself.

You can never have enough data points.

Then I will get back to it, to assigning numbers to a subjective art form, to figuring out whether Okada’s classics are better than Toyota’s, to trying to contrast Flair’s connection with the crowd to Austin’s or Danielson’s or Kenny Omega’s.

When I wrote for Bleacher Report, I called Shawn Michaels the GOAT. Yet when I crowned an all-time WWE great via March Madness-style bracket, I made Steve Austin the winner. When asked in person who is the best ever, I have said Flair, Toyota, Misawa, Kobashi, Okada. I am a flip-flopper, and I am sorry.

Don’t blame me, though. Blame the impossibility of the question.

You don’t find an answer to something like this. Not a real one. You go on a journey via discussion. You debate and ponder and argue. You walk in circles trying to get your fingers on an ever-shifting truth.

Or you just grow a pair and form an opinion based on everything available to us. Commit. Type the name.

Ric Flair.

Shingo Takagi.

Daniel Bryan.

Mitsuharu Misawa.