Starting Nine is the method a lineup nerd uses to rank his personal favorites. These are not necessarily the nine all-time best entries of the subject being covered. It’s an exercise in finding the entries that best fit the profile for each spot in the batting order.
I’m a lineup traditionalist: I like dependable table-setters in the 1 and 2 spots, world-beating franchise powerhouses 3rd and 4th, potent sluggers 5th and 6th, hard-nosed role players 7th and 8th, and an underrated, dirt-dog workhorse in the 9-hole.


Like many children of the ’80s, I grew up watching and loving pro wrestling. WWF Superstars was my main event that capped off a loaded undercard of Saturday morning cartoons, and Wrestling Challenge was must-watch TV each Sunday because the great Bobby “the Brain” Heenan was on color commentary. Then when I caught Sting vs The Great Muta in a Falls Count Anywhere match on TBS one Saturday evening, I was exposed to a whole new, less cartoony world of pseudo-combat that redoubled my interest in what I have always termed a “soap opera for guys.”

Truth be told though, I never watched wrestling for the stories. I’ve thought Hulk Hogan was lame since I was nine years old. The Ultimate Warrior always looked and sounded like a buffoon to me. And aside from Demolition, the greatest tag team of my childhood, I always rolled my eyes at the over-the-top characters that shouted into the camera and had no qualms about getting disqualified and losing their match just so they could put a hurtin’ on an opponent they disliked.

“That was stupid,” I said to myself one Saturday after seeing Sgt. Slaughter continue to grind his knuckle into Tito Santana’s temple long after Tito had reached the middle rope, causing the DQ. “He just lost the match for that.”

“Luke, it’s fake,” my dad responded, unsolicited, without looking up from his computer screen.

“I know, Dad,” an eight-year-old Luke muttered from his spot on the floor. “I just wish they’d pretend it was real.”

That, in a nutshell, sums up my thoughts on professional wrestling. I know it’s scripted. I knew from the first time I saw the Barbarian flail backwards into the corner despite Jake “the Snake” Roberts completely whiffing on the punch that sent Barb reeling. But I want the wrestlers to do their damndest to make me feel like I’m watching a real sport. In short, I want to see wrestlers perform really cool moves in a somewhat believable way that will allow me to somewhat suspend my disbelief.

Piledrivers, moonsaults, backhand chops that nobody would ever attempt during a real fight … it’s all on the table for me as long as I feel like you’re trying to make it look kind of real. We all know Rocky and Apollo Creed would be deader than disco if they actually wailed each other in the face without blocking a single punch the way they did in the movie. It’s still fun to watch.

That’s my longwinded way of saying I like action-packed matches with a lot of athletic moves. Promos, for the most part, are not my thing. I can appreciate a good one, but nobody can talk me into a buying a pay-per-view event. If you want my dollar, you gotta give me some great in-ring action that I’m afraid to look away from.

Now that you know there will be no Hulk Hogans or John Cenas on my list, here is my Starting Nine of pro wrestlers.


1. AJ Styles

The original torch bearer of TNA (now Impact Wrestling), AJ truly is phenomenal. I turned on TNA one night on a whim and happened to see an X Division match featuring AJ Styles and couldn’t believe my eyes. I hadn’t watched much WWE in the last couple years, as I felt the Cena-heavy schlock they were cranking out every week was worse than awful. But this dude on the other channel was going 100 miles an hour doing springboard forearms, flip dives, and nip ups into hurricanranas that I had never realized were possible. I became a fan of TNA, whose product was really quite terrible for much of the company’s existence, strictly to watch AJ Styles blow my mind with his athleticism. He’s in WWE now, where he is wasted as a middling player, but he’s also in his 40s and likely a lot more susceptible to injury. If peak Shawn Michael ate one of those blinking stars from Super Mario Brothers, he would wrestle like AJ Styles.


2. “Macho Man” Randy Savage

The Macho Man cut some of the best promos of all time, but that cuts little ice with me. I loved him because he had some of the greatest matches of all time. I actually thought Hulk Hogan was a great wrestler after I saw him beat Savage at Wrestlemania 5, and it wasn’t until over a decade later that I realized I only felt that way at the time because Savage made him look great. Randy also somehow had a great match with the Ultimate Warrior, a feat on the level of turning water into wine, a couple years later at Wrestlemania 7. And the classic he had with Ric Flair to win his second WWF Championship was a blood-soaked work of art. He was also one of the great offensive innovators of all time. His flying elbow drop is one of the five best finishers ever, but it was the cheap tactics he used early on to attack the good guy’s neck and set up that elbow drop that I appreciated the most. Randy would grab a guy by the hair and leap over the top rope all the way to the floor, forcing the babyface’s throat across the tope rope on his way down. Then he would bring his opponent out of the ring, stand him up, lean him against the guardrail, climb to the top rope, and jump some 15 feet to the floor with a vicious double axe handle to the back of his opponent’s head that would send the poor bastard’s throat down onto the steel apparatus. Perhaps my favorite heel wrestler of all time.
Dig it!


3. Bret “Hitman” Hart

The perfect example of what I want to see in a wrestler. On the microphone, Bret was as dull as a doornail until he turned against the U.S. right before he left WWF. But if I had to make a list of the 20 best matches I’ve ever seen, the Hitman would probably be in at least eight of them. The “Excellence of Execution” made wrestling look as real as it could ever possibly appear. His finishing move, the Sharpshooter, was a submission hold that torqued his opponent’s back. Thus, he would spend the entire match delivering backbreakers, Russian leg sweeps, elbows, headbutts, and other moves that targeted the back. He also may have “sold” better than any other wrestler I’ve seen. That means when his opponent executed a move on him, he made it look like it nearly killed him. Five minutes into every match, his mouth would perpetually hang open as if he was exhausted despite the fact that he had the conditioning to wrestle for an hour straight with no problem. The Hart Foundation was the second coolest tag team of all time (if you’re a wrestling fan my age, you can guess who number one was) because of him. He had two bouts with Mr. Perfect that are on the short list of the greatest matches in history. He made Shawn Michaels a top star with their Iron Man Match at Wrestlemania 12. He made “Stone Cold” Steve Austin the biggest star ever the very next year. He introduced the Ladder Match to WWF.
To put it in Bret’s own words, “I sold wrestling.”


4. Kurt Angle

Perhaps the greatest athlete to ever step in the ring, this “Wrestling Machine” made everything look real. He wasn’t the first amateur wrestler to get into the squared circle, but he was perhaps the greatest professional wrestling prodigy we’ve ever seen. He beat The Rock to win the WWF Championship in his first year as a pro wrestler. He had classic matches with literally every top star of his time, having spent several years as main eventer in both WWF/WWE and TNA. He could grapple, slug it out, or mat-wrestle believably with anybody, while even sprinkling in an errant moonsault from time-to-time. His matches with Chris Benoit were brutal, hard-hitting affairs that I watched over and over again. His Wrestlemania matches with Benoit, Shawn Michaels, Eddie Guerrero, and Brock Lesnar were spectacular, and he had what many think is the greatest TNA match ever with Samoa Joe. He brought with him a legitimacy that wrestling had never seen before, and his stamina and intensity in the ring was second to none. And to top it off, he cut great promos practically from day one. Debuting as the dorky holier-than-thou Olympic hero, transitioning into the conniving prizefighter, then culminating his career as the unstoppable thoroughbred, Kurt Angle belongs on the Mount Rushmore of pro wrestlers.
It’s True. It’s true.


5. Rob Van Dam

The most unique skillset I’ve ever seen in the ring belongs to the one and only “Whole F***ing Show. He could kick harder, jump further, and get higher than any wrestler in history. His promos were always the same: “I’m a cool guy that will do some great stuff in the ring and win.” He was a laid back dude that knew from the start of his career that he was better than just about everybody else in the game. A thick, muscular guy that weighed 230 or more, RVD still practically hit the rafters with his Five Star Frog Splash. The Van Daminator was the first finisher to actually incorporate a foreign object, and the Van Terminator seemed like a physical impossibility until I actually saw him do it. He was ten times better than anyone else to ever come out of ECW, that haven of wrestling rejects and retreads, holding the ECW World Television Title for nearly two years without a loss. He smoked tons of weed, refused to engage in heated feuds, and took time off whenever he possibly could, yet WWE still made him world champion because he was that much better than everyone else in the company. His WWE Championship win against John Cena at the ECW Arena looked set to be a watershed moment in wrestling history … until fate, some bad decisions, and a highway patrolman brought wrestling progress to a screeching halt.


6. “Stone Cold” Steve Austin

He’s probably best known for his promos as the beer-swilling redneck that beat the crap out of his billionaire boss, but before his neck injury, Steve Austin was one of the best in-ring wrestlers of his time. He was the best brawler/grappler in WCW long before he went to WWE as Ted Dibiase’s Million Dollar Champion, and he took off like a rocket once he donned the Stone Cold moniker. He went hard and fast in the ring, punching and stomping the piss out of his opponents in a manner that looked incredibly believable (probably because he was stiffing the hell out of them). His feud with Bret Hart, particularly their Wrestlemania 13 match, is as close to perfect as any wrestling rivalry has ever been, despite the fact that Austin never beat Bret a single time. Austin’s crowning achievement, winning his first WWF Championship from Shawn Michaels at Wrestlemania 14 (I was there, Joey), was the last old-school, one-on-one, call-it-in-the-ring Wrestlemania main event the world ever saw. His feuds with Mr. McMahon and The Rock catapulted WWF from entertainment powerhouse to global conglomerate, and let’s not forget that he ushered in the greatest finishing move of all time.


7. “Ravishing” Rick Rude

Why did the toughest non-Samoan wrestler this world has ever seen play a seductive chickensh!t bad guy? Because he wanted to, that’s why. Rick Rude was an arm wrestling champion that was known among his peers to be capable of knocking a grown man out cold with a barehanded slap. Yet his character was of a guy that would slowly untie his robe, gyrate his hips, and plant a kiss on some lucky lady in the stands after lambasting the men in the crowd as a bunch of fat, out-of-shape, (insert alliterative area-specific diss). You’d never know how tough Rick Rude was in real life based on the actions of the guy in the ring. He ran from his opponents and avoided confrontation at all costs, caring far more about how freshly oiled his abs were than the merit of his victories. Like Savage, he pulled off the incalculably difficult task of pulling a couple good matches out of the Ultimate Warrior, and he took the greatest atomic drops this word has ever seen. He’s also the only person to ever appear on WCW Monday Nitro and Monday Night Raw in the same night. Rick Rude is one of the underappreciated all-time greats.


8. “The Heartbreak Kid” Shawn Michaels

You can tell from what you read above: I’m a Bret guy, not a Shawn guy. But I’m not stupid. HBK is known as “Mr. Wrestlemania” for a reason. Just look at his first appearance at the event, as one-half of the coolest tag team of all-time, the Rockers. He and his partner, Marty Jannetty, got tossed all over the ring to make the Twin Towers look like beasts. Once he threw Mary threw that window to begin his singles career, he never slowed down. His two Ladder Matches with Razor Ramon are still known as the greatest incarnations of that gimmick, and he catapulted the careers of guys like Kevin Nash, Mick Foley, Triple H, Chris Jericho, and Kurt Angle from top stars into bona fide legends by having all-time great matches with them all. He even propelled Ric Flair and the Undertaker from legendary status into something even greater by orchestrating jaw-dropping spectacles of drama and emotion at extremely late stages in their careers. They say he was among the nastiest divas in wrestling history back in his prime, but there’s no doubt that the Heartbreak Kid is one of the best to ever lace ’em up.


9. “American Dragon” Bryan Danielson

I heard Bryan Danielson’s name on the internet for years during the immediate post-Attitude era as the quality of wrestling on TV really began spiraling down the drain. He’s listed at 5’10” and 210 pounds, which means he’s probably about 5’8″ and 180 pounds in real life. When I finally saw him on a Ring of Honor DVD, I was floored by how well he seemed to do everything. He was great on the mat, threw every suplex in the book, applied really cool submission holds (Cattle Mutilation was my personal favorite), and delivered high impact knees, elbows, and headbutts that looked concussion inducing. I think the greatest testament to Dragon is that he got to the top of the mountain in WWE, where the out-of-touch, elderly megalomaniac in charge despised the idea of a pasty-skinned, plain-looking short dude as a mainstay at the top of the card. But then Bryan grew a whacky beard, which I guess finally sold Vince on him. Whatever.
After recovering from some scary brain injury concerns, I’m happy to see that Dragon is still tapping dudes out in AEW main events. As far as these eyes can tell, he hasn’t lost a step.


I’d love to see some of my fellow Bleacher Brawlers list their favorite wrestler Starting Nines so we can compare and contrast them. One thing is for sure though: I’ll take my guys in an 18-man tag match over any other group that could possibly be assembled.

By Luke

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