Ten months ago I was asked to participate in an “experts” survey whose goal was to highlight the greatest pro-wrestling has offered. Comments were encouraged but not required, so in vintage Lorefice fashion I spent two months trying to write something really good only to lose the conductor’s contact information when my hard drive crashed. Not wanting to have another addition to the growing list of material that’s perpetually “in progress”, I finally decided to do some reworking and present the material in this column.
The actual poll had most topics separated into two categories, all-time and active. Both of these were troublesome because the all definition was left up to the individual. Instead of all-time rankings I’m just considering the last 25 years to represent what I’ve seen a good deal of, though even that is stretching it, and encompasses the entire career of the vast majority of people I’d feel qualified enough to vote for. For active wrestlers, I leaned toward older wrestlers basing it on their entire body of work, but I’m sure many others would have defined their own time period such as so far this year, the last year, the last two or three years. For my purposes, I’ve replaced this category with HM (honorable mention) to allow myself to include some other wrestlers that were close to making it or whose merits I felt were at least worth discussing.
Greatest Male Heavyweight:
(#1) Toshiaki Kawada
Dangerous K represents wrestling as something that can be respected, a serious athletic art form that requires a lot more than having "the look" or "the tools". When you think of Kawada, you think of credibility, something he earns for himself and his opponents where it's supposed to be done, in the ring. He's one of the only top wrestlers that looks like he's been through the wars, and that's certainly what his matches are. Though stiffness and believability is his style, what I appreciate a lot more than the toughness and brutality are his intelligence and nuance. Even though it seems as though no one wants to listen anymore, his biggest contributions to the sport are in the aspects of storytelling, psychology, build, and selling, all of which he took to levels that won't be surpassed anytime soon. He's about doing things for a reason, and while almost all of the stories he tells are understandable to newcomers, the people he caters to are actually the real longtime fans. The more you know about the history of his matches and his promotion, the more references you can detect, and the more you can appreciate the greatness of both Kawada and All Japan.
(#2) Jumbo Tsuruta
Though his career was sadly cut short by disease, the most impressive thing about Jumbo might be his longevity in a major role. He was great at the technical style of the 70s with The Funks, and had no problem against the big brawling gaijins like Bruiser Brody & Terry Gordy. He adapted to the faster pace style of the mid 80s brought to All Japan by Riki Choshu, then defined the greatness of the Triple Crown and created the 90s psychology laden style with an amazing series of bouts against Genichiru Tenryu from 1988-90. Though Jumbo didn’t lose much, he's a rare top star who had the smarts and desire to find ways to put the opposition over one way or another without compromising himself. With Tenryu taking the money and forming the ill-fated SWS, the very unselfish Jumbo put Misawa over to bring him near his level and assumed the grumpy old man role. This final stretch was actually the most impressive of his career, with Jumbo's army vs. Misawa's army having a show in and show out feud whose match quality will likely never be approached. Ten years later we were lucky if the All Japan stars fired up once a tour, but in the early 90’s everyone in the Jumbo vs. Misawa program worked at very near their top level week in and week out - singles or tag - doing house show matches that would be match of the year contenders had they taken place in the 2000s. Jumbo could have succeeded at an extremely high level in any era because he was always able to adapt and evolve his style, and that's the mark of a true great.
(#3) Mitsuharu Misawa
Misawa benefited greatly from his position. He was carried by Jumbo in his best early matches, and by Kawada in his best prime matches. He was a lot smarter than Kenta Kobashi, which allowed him to exceed him in many a big match, though he lacked the drive to always be memorable that made the superior working Kobashi the day in and day out in-ring star of their duo and later rivalry. Nonetheless, being the featured performer during by far the best stretch of heavyweight wrestling ever, his body of work is too outstanding to overlook. He was in more great matches in the ’90’s than most promotions have delivered in their entire history, and that all comes down to his desire and dedication to deliver in-ring classics. Consider that in 1990, New Japan’s young stars Keiji Muto, Masahiro Chono, & Hiroshi Hase were considered fairly comparable to All Japan’s Misawa, Kawada, & Kobashi (with Hashimoto below), but in the end any member of the All Japan three had more great matches in their best month than the New Japan three had in their entire careers. Misawa certainly participated in the lion’s share of great 1990’s heavyweight matches, and during his best years he was near the level of Kawada & Jumbo, able to do their thing and deliver spectacular offense. My problem with him is when he had the chance, he went in the direction of doofus Kobashi, doing heavyweight spot matches that quickly started looking the same and far more importantly burned everyone out. His sins of the late 90's are a big reason Akiyama didn't become the great he should have - certainly their series of matches lacked all the cleverness of Jumbo’s veteran defeating the hot young worker but elevating their status in the process matches against Misawa, Kawada, & Kobashi - and NOAH has consistently failed to continue the All Japan tradition of heavyweight greatness. Still, while All Japan has become Muto meets WAR in his absence and most leagues have moved toward meaningless and nonsensical American shenanigans, it’s Misawa’s league that has been the remaining major torch carrier for serious pro-wrestling.
(HM) Kiyoshi Tamura
Easily the greatest ever at the worked shoot style, Tamura was hurt by the rising popularity of shoots as much as anyone, even though he can do them well. RINGS became a must see league as soon as he arrived, even if only for his matches. At first chance, he had the best worked shoot ever with Volk Han, and at second chance they'd topped it. Just as quickly he adapted to the changes the popularity of MMA matches had ushered in, and had the match against Tsuyoshi Kosaka, a classic as exciting as Han's matches but in a different totally believable way. His big period is just 3 years (1996-98) because RINGS went to all shoots, but (along with Kazuo Yamazaki) his work in UWF-I was ahead of its time for complexity and credibility, holdings up to our increased knowledge of what really works better than his contemporaries. His U-STYLE is the only exciting development out of this craze where everyone needs their own promotion. It’s the only one that's presenting a style you can't get anywhere else, rather than the same old crap with a different person in power that won't give up any of their control for the good of the business.
Greatest Male Junior:
(#1) Jushin Thunder Liger
Liger is light years ahead of the pack. Everyone always wants to write him off, but their flavor of the month comes and goes that quickly, while Liger is still around finding some way to get top level matches out of a body that's had at least as many reasons to give way as all those that have. Liger's early career was defined by the style that had ruled the junior division, as Yamada he was of the best non-UWF alumni at working the more credible junior style of the Takada era. He was also a great flier, but while his spectacular Tiger Mask acrobatics defined his early years as Liger, he wowed us while making the invaluable contribution to the sport of showing the divisions top star could not only put their opponent over, but even lose to them. Marked by all time classics against Naoki Sano and El Samurai, this is generally considered his best period simply because it's his flashiest. However, his mid 90's stuff is what cements him in the top spot. It's then that he combined those two elements and completely incorporated the mental aspects prevalent in All Japan, best exemplified by his 2/9/97 classic against Shinjiro Otani. Similar to Kawada, Liger understood that it wasn't necessary to have the flashiest spots, it was the substance that counted. The biggest argument for Liger is comparing his matches against a wrestler to anyone else's. Liger always carried the match and found ways to have a smart purposeful match virtually free of excess and goofiness that brought out their strengths and minimized their weaknesses. Get the same guy away from Liger and he might awe you more, but his decisions would leave you scratching your head just as often.
#2 Dynamite Kid
Dynamite was extremely influential, both positively and negatively. An awesome athlete that could have been a great flyer, but instead showed juniors could be all around wrestlers that do everything the heavyweights can, and also a lot they can't. Extremely stiff and an excellent brawler in the traditional sense (when it was about how you mixed it up not how much plunder you brought). Kid also showed juniors could hang with heavyweights, with even guys that aren't known for their willingness to sell such as Abdullah The Butcher being disposed to putting his offense over because he earned their respect. He gave his all every night, not just when the cameras were rolling and he felt like it (though he was moody and at times would decide to embarrass an opponent that was nothing but a promoter's creation). Usually an extremely unselfish wrestler that took amazing bumps to put his opponents over. Sometimes they were excessive or too insane, and especially guys that didn't have his athleticism would do a lot bigger number of their body than he did trying to imitate him. Wrestlers such as Benoit might not be killing themselves to attain and maintain a pointless entirely cosmetic look if their idol hadn't shown them the way.
#3 Satoru Sayama
Though Lucha Libre was a big influence on his offense, Sayama greatly exceeded what any of those guys could do athletically and was the key in transforming juniors from small technical heavyweights to flyers, and in spreading that style throughout the world (Japan, UK, US). Probably the greatest athlete the squared circle has ever seen, there certainly was no one quicker in his prime and he had superior body control and outstanding reflexes to utilize his athleticism to the fullest. His high spots have long been topped, though the best Japanese flyer of the 1990's, The Great Sasuke, used Tiger's space flying Tiger drop as his key dive (he also invented a second version). What makes Sayama's matches age so well is not the moves he did, but his gymnastic ability. He could seemingly counter any move where he was tossed or thrown, somehow finding a way to land on his feet. With moves such as arm bars, snapmares, and back body drops becoming "boring" and pedestrian, we no longer see those crazy athletic counters that made his matches with Dynamite Kid so outstanding. Tiger’s work with the original UWF shows versatility he’s rarely credited for, as he still managed to have some of the best matches despite a style that eliminated almost all his strengths. Obviously there's a big downside with Tiger. He was usually carried, certainly in his best matches against Dynamite & Kuniaki Kobayashi, and he's a Sandy Koufax (short career with only a few strong years, but those few years were phenomenal) except worse as he eventually came back and was mediocre at best.
HM Chris Benoit
Benoit was awesome in the early to mid 90's, one of the only periods where New Japan had a second junior capable of carrying someone other than the best junior to greatness. He's basically a less athletic but smarter version of his idol Dynamite Kid. He can't simply react the way Dynamite did with Tiger, but he can lay out a lot better match. In particular, his timing of when to give his opponent spectacular offense and when to transition back into his own, best exemplified by the matches he had against Otani & Koji Kanemoto in the mid 1990’s, is impeccable. Benoit in the New Japan junior division probably cracks the top 3 because he was brilliant when he actually had a move set to back up his blistering brutality, but like everyone else his output plummeted greatly not long after he started working regularly in America.
HM Silver King
I always think of junior wrestling as the most consistently good stuff around, but filling out this ballot has made me realize what a short shelf life juniors have. At best they graduate to the heavyweight division, but usually they have a few big years and then go to a league where they are wasted or are never the same due to injury. Out of the four I selected, only Liger has a storied body of work within the division, and even he has been moving more toward the heavies of late. Trying to find another active wrestler who I felt was really worthy was pretty deadly. I finally settled on Silver King, though I’m not nearly as familiar with his complete body of work as I should be. He had his big years in the mid 80's especially and early 90's, and was treated miserably in WCW to the point he soon didn't even bother, but of all the great international juniors that signed in the US during the mid 90's, he's the only one that in my estimation pretty much regained his old form. Singles or tag, good opponent(s) or mediocre, this guy finds a way to have a good match. It’s odd how the styles change. I mean, one wouldn’t have expected a veteran like Silver to be the best flyer in the top junior division in the world, but that was the case when New Japan was using him regularly in 2002.
Greatest Female Wrestler:
#1 Jaguar Yokota
Yokota was the first great female. Wrestling doesn't have stats, but if you look at how far ahead of his peers Babe Ruth was in home runs during his early seasons with the Bankee$, that's about how far ahead of her peers Yokota was as a worker. The closest females she had to equals were when her own proteges Devil Masami and Lioness Asuka, as they reached the level where they could hold up their end when she went all out with them. Not only did she tower over the women; she was a better worker than any of the men. Granted mixed gender matches are generally a disaster, but if you could put her against Tiger Mask or Dynamite Kid in 1982 when all three were at their peak with them treating her as an equal it would have been unbelievable. Jaguar retired much too early due to AJW's stupid policy, but came back almost 9 years later and was excellent from her first match. At age 37 in 1998, her finale year before retiring for the second time, Jaguar was no worse than the #3 female worker in the world, which is just unheard of for a female athlete. Her style defined AJW for most of the last 25 years even though she only wrestled there for 1/3 of them, and part of the reason AJW stopped churning out great workers is she was no longer their trainer after forming Jd'.
#2 Akira Hokuto
Hokuto was the real total package - psychology, selling, drama, intensity, ability to elevate any opponent, work, charisma, etc. If the goal was to have a great match, and I could pick one wrestler in their prime to lead someone to it, Hokuto would be the best bet. What she accomplished in 1993 was simply amazing. Her big interpromotional matches were against the LLPW stars, who (aside from Harley Saito) not only weren't exactly legendary workers but didn't wrestle a style that was conducive to better than good matches, yet through her usual assortment of injuries Hokuto led them to memorable matches that were the best matches of their careers. I might be overrating her because her peak is so brief due to injury, and after 1993 she either hardly wrestled or hardly had any good matches. However, her ability to have a top notch match of incredible drama that seems meaningful and important is second to none. I think more of Shinobu Kandori now than I used to, but when you look at the top matches across the genres, her name really sticks out as the wrestler who has no business being in THE MATCH, which says as much about Hokuto’s amazing ability to carry a match and make it incredibly dramatic as anything.
#3 Mayumi Ozaki
One of the reasons the overall quality of every sport has been declining so much is the delusion that “the tools” are the be all and end all. Instead of actually looking at the individual and trying to determine why they are successful and if they are a winner with a good head on their shoulders, all that matters these days are idiotic measurements. If you throw 98 MPH, someone will sign you even if you have no movement and can't locate the ball within 20 feet of the target. If you run a 4.0 40 some NFL team will sign you as a sign you as a wide receiver in spite of your brick hands. In the midst of this stupidity, the greatest all around heel as well as the best brawler emerged. She's about 5'0", 100 pounds, but she's a giant in the squared circle that has succeeded in every role she's been in, in every league she's wrestled in, in every style she's worked. What makes Ozaki great is not any single attribute, but simply that she knows how to put forth the illusion. She has the utmost confidence in herself, and thus we can believe in her. There is nothing Ozaki isn't at least good at, but she possesses has the proverbial intangibles in spades, knowing knows how to do exactly what it will take to make you believe what she needs you to. She is incredibly smart, and a great actor with the best and most convincing expressions in the business. Developing quicker than her peers, she was a top 5 female worker throughout the 1990’s. It’s true that Ozaki doesn't have as many excellent matches as some of her peers, but she also wasn't working in places that had many wrestlers near her level. Compare her matches to her peers, and you’ll see she led most of the wrestlers in JWP and GAEA to their best matches. When she had her big opportunity during the AJW interpromotional period, virtually every match she had was great, including being a key factor in delivering the best woman’s tag match on 11/26/92 and gimmick tag match on 7/31/93.
HM Manami Toyota
I’m sure I’ll take a lot of heat for this, so blame Jerome Denis. Jusk kidding, but sooner or later I had to look past the excitement and to all the bad thinking. Toyota is the Cal Ripken of wrestling, the ultimate compiler. Her sheer number of excellent matches is overwhelming, and in fact her overall output is second to none. However, she was carried in almost all her great singles matches, by Aja Kong & Hokuto among others. Even under the guidance of some of the world’s smartest wrestlers, her decisions and timing were often questionable at best. Her go go style was the cigarettes of AJW, killing off wrestlers that didn’t even want to use it. Though brokedown Toyota has had notable trouble doing some of her more difficult moves, even in her prime her execution could kindly be described as spotty. Despite her injuries, longevity is one of the big things in her favor. She became excellent in 4 years, had 6 years where she seemingly had a very good or better match on every show, and for another 6, until she graduated to the retirement home of women’s wrestling, was able to have high level matches most of the time she was supposed to. The AJW collapse allowed her to remain a key player until she left, so she had a lot more opportunity in her later years than those that came before her. She did everything one could ask of her in terms of quantity, and had so much talent that it translated to quality, but in the end I can’t put someone with such a flawed style in the top 3.
HM Aja Kong
Aja is the ultimate large wrestler. As stiff, tough, and nasty as they come, but also capable of doing things associated with smaller wrestlers. She came after Dump Matsumoto & Bull Nakano, but she didn't seem like the third choice because she was a lot smarter and also more brutal (Bull would make you cringe once or twice per match, but I felt she would injure people through lousy body control while Kong would consistently stay just short of injuring her opponent because she was in control). It took her longer to develop than most of her classmates, in fact she had the top title before she even approached greatness, but once she did she carried everyone and her big matches were top flight. She was everything you'd want in a champion, but where I part company with some people is never felt she could cope with not being the top star. To me, her main focus has been trying to regain her 1993-95 glory, and that's kept her from delivering the high quality of matches she's still capable of (her program with Satomura shows the quality she could have delivering in AJW and ARSION from 1996-00), and was a big reason ARSION didn't succeed (during their make or break period, she was more concerned with GAEA). In recent years, Aja has once again risen to the top, as while her peers egos swelled and their performances were blowing through their favorite movies, Aja has shown more motivation and desire to not only work with the younger wrestlers, but do some thoughtful things with them to allow the match to work for everyone involved.
Greatest Tag Team:
#1 Toshiaki Kawada & Akira Taue
Kawada & Taue were the mainstay in all the great AJ tag matches from 1993 through the split. In their early years when AJ still featured tag wrestling they had such superb psychology and told such relevant and deep stories, leading to the best tag match ever on 6/9/95 and then topping it on 12/6/96. In the later years when tag team wrestling had become a forgotten art, they were the one men’s tag team you believed might deliver a memorable match.
#2 Las Cachorras Orientales (Mima Shimoda & Etsuko Mita)
I could see voting for Shimoda & Mita first because they not only made a tag match as much as anyone I’ve seen, but they did it without great opposition. In fact, in later years they often did it with downright mediocre opposition. Almost every great team had a great rival, but LCO had Tomoko Watanabe and whomever they felt like sticking with her. Watanabe was very good before her knee problems, and Kaoru Ito was better, but most of the time it was Watanabe with Kumiko Maekawa or Nanae Takahashi, both of whom could be called average if you were in a kind mood. LCO is also the only outstanding team in Japan that took their show on the road. Just after they totally redefined themselves as heels, and became a great team that redefined what it meant to be a female heel team in little more than a month, the AJW exodus came. That killed the output of most of the women because the talent was spread so thin, but LCO made it work in their favor. During their free agent period, they regularly had the tag match of the year for multiple promotions. It wasn't as if they were fighting the same team in two or three leagues either, they usually had two good programs going at once, and could come into a third promotion and get a good match out of just about anyone if you needed them to. A remarkably consistent team despite their formative years taking place after what should have been their prime and during a time when woman's wrestling was in total disarray.
#3 Mitsuharu Misawa & Kenta Kobashi
Misawa & Kobashi were the greatest heavyweight team ever in terms of the quality of the individuals. Kobashi was the best pure worker (I consider this what you can do, not whether you can make any sense of it) of the heavyweights. He could make any match in the ring, especially with Kawada on the other end to think for him. Misawa had graduated from the ranks of the juniors, and at this time was a great all around wrestler that also could think for Kobashi. The duo has a number of tremendous matches where they are on the same team, though many of them were with Kawada sandwiched in between the two. Due to Kobashi and Jun Akiyama being elevated, there's only a three year period where Kobashi is Misawa's #2, but what years they were.