The professional wrestling industry is a mainstay of American sports and entertainment. Sports are at their best when there are high stakes and drama involved, and WWE and its predecessors know how to craft storylines and play to the crowd with the very best of the media industry: there’s a reason why wrestlers like Ric Flair, Hulk Hogan, The Rock, and John Cena take to any media opportunity they come across like a fish to water.
They’re natural-born entertainers, no matter if they’re in the ring or trying their hand as movie stars. Here are some of the very best in the history of professional wrestling, and what makes them stand out across their careers.
Everyone loves to root for an underdog story, but it’s even more compelling when that hardship comes from real life rather than inventive storyboarding.
Although he is widely celebrated as one of the greatest wrestlers ever today, Ric Flair’s career nearly ended before it even began. As a young buck on the amateur circuit trying to make it big, Flair relied on his size and strength to prevail.
That came to an end in 1975, when he broke three vertebrae in a plane crash. Told that he would never wrestle again, Flair managed to beat the odds, not just at Fanatics Sportsbook, but in the game of life as well. Flair made his triumphant return to the ring three months later, learning to excel as a grappler to overcome his injuries.
In many ways, Flair is responsible for the world of wrestling as we know it today. His ‘Nature Boy’ gimmick, begun by Buddy Rogers—who likely drew inspiration from a Nat King Cole song of the same name—came about after he bested Rogers, then on the tail end of his career. Defined by bleached blonde hair, a womanizing attitude, and the signature four-figure leg lock grappling move, Flair embodied the Nature Boy wherever he went, as famous for his exploits outside the ring as for those inside it.
Along with creating the slogan “Wooo!” that has come to be associated with his name, he also contributed to the rise of pay-per-view wrestling into the popular sport that it is today..
Standing at a staggering 6-foot-7 and weighing over 300 pounds, Hulk Hogan is another behemoth who contributed to the worldwide success of wrestling. He had disagreements with Vince McMahon Sr. on stylistic choices, therefore it took him some time to get into the then-WWF. However, once his father passed away, Vince McMahon Jr. quickly reintegrated him into the fold.
Hogan was an obvious choice to support because of his charisma and intimidating stature in addition to his extravagant All-American character, which included frequent red, white, and blue attire. And who could forget his well-known, deep-voiced “brother” catchphrase, which turned into one of the earliest memes on the internet .
Similar to Flair, Hogan gained international notoriety when Hulkamania erupted in the late 1980s. Similar to Flair, he was able to alter directions and return from retirement in the 1990s to attempt a career as a heel, which was a significant departure from his earlier days as a cutesy hero.
Hogan’s battles with similarly supersized wrestlers like Andre the Giant and Earthquake were the stuff of legend, as he somehow managed to body slam men nearly twice his size, using his signature leg drop to send them packing.
While both Ric Flair and Hulk Hogan became media sensations in their own right, not just because of their presence in the ring, The Undertaker is a different phenomenon entirely. Much like the gritty, thankless profession he portrays, Undertaker is all business, relying on supernatural themes and his imposing 6-foot-10, 309-pound stature to create one of the most threatening talents we’ve ever seen.
Instead of playing the crowd with humor and wit, fear is the Undertaker’s spectacle. That might have limited his ceiling, especially as the league looked to entice the masses with a more kid-friendly product: movie studios weren’t tripping over themselves to sign Undertaker to a contract as they did with The Rock and John Cena.
Even so, Undertaker’s threatening mystique makes him one of the best wrestlers in history despite all that. The dark undertones of his performances give him the best gimmick in the history of the sport, better than The Rock’s trash talk or the Nature Boy’s charisma. His ability to consistently draw main cards, winning 21 straight WrestleMania events, and dominating the league for more than three decades, easily earns him a spot on this list.