The Landscape of professional wrestling has changed an absurd amount over the last 10 years. From the rise of NXT & All Elite Wrestling to the resurgence of New Japan Pro Wrestling, the top stars of the business no longer begin and end with WWE’s main roster. To celebrate the decade that was, here are the 10 Wrestlers who I think were a cut above the rest. Here are my Top 10 Wrestlers of the 2010s.
Honorable Mention: CM Punk
It would sound like lunacy to think that CM Punk would find himself outside of the Top 10 on a list like this back in 2012, but there’s not much we can do given that the Voice of the Voiceless has been away from the ring entirely for almost six years now. Despite that, the impact Punk made between 2011 and 2013 is undeniable. The Pipe Bomb, his WWE Championship match with John Cena at Money in the Bank 2011 (which is the only WWE main roster match this decade to earn a five-star rating from the Wrestling Observer), his 434-day WWE title reign (the longest in the companies “modern history”), and his matches with Brock Lesnar and The Undertaker are moments that wrestling fans will remember for a very long time. He didn’t have the longevity to make the list, but The Second City Saint more than deserves an honorable mention.
#10. Adam Cole
If you are strictly a WWE fan you may never have heard of Adam Cole before he joined NXT in 2017, but he has been one of the fastest rising stars in all of wrestling for years. His PWG World Championship win in 2012 was a good sign that Cole was the future of the wrestling industry. The PWG World Title came with almost de-facto “King of Independent Wrestling” moniker, and plenty of future world champions in other companies got their start by winning that prestigious belt. Cole would go on to hold the PWG world title for 538 days, the longest reign in company history. After that, he moved on to Ring of Honor (which, at the time, was the second biggest company in the United States) and continued his meteoric rise to the top of the business.
Cole solidified his place as one of the greatest competitors in ROH history, winning their world championship a record three times. Once he finally signed with WWE, he hit the ground running. Becoming the inaugural NXT North American champion in a five-star Ladder match at NXT Takeover: New Orleans. Cole would win the NXT Championship at the 25th NXT Takeover,, becoming the second person to hold the NXT, Tag Team, & North American championships in the promotions history.
Adam Cole has proven for years that not only is he one of the best wrestlers in the world, but that he’s also one of the best on the mic. He’s checked off every box for what a superstar in professional wrestling is supposed to be. He’s got the technical ability, the look, and top-notch skills on the mic. It seems like such a forgone conclusion that some have even deemed him as the next Shawn Michaels, and he’s only 30 years old. Don’t be surprised if the Panama City Playboy finds himself at the top of a list like this ten years from now.
When WWE signed Asuka in September of 2015, she was already being billed as the biggest signing in NXT history. She certainly didn’t disappoint, as the Empress of Tomorrow ran roughshod over the NXT Women’s division. Just seven months later, Asuka choked out Bayley to become the new NXT Women’s Championship at NXT Takeover: Dallas. What Asuka would go on to accomplish after that is unprecedented. Not just in NXT, but the entire modern-day history of WWE. Asuka would defend that title for the next 522 days without taking a single loss. She was so dominant in NXT that she would eventually relinquish the belt before getting the call-up to Monday Night RAW. Never before or since has a competitor, male or female, ruled over WWE’s yellow-and-black brand to such a degree.
Asuka’s dominance did not stop once she got to the main roster. If anything, it further cemented the fact that she was unlike any woman the WWE universe had ever seen before. In her first survivor series appearance she dominated Team Smackdown, becoming the “Sole Survivor” of Team RAW in the process. After her WWE Undefeated streak had passed 800 Days (Eight. Hundred. Days.) she dominated 29 of the best female wrestlers in the world en route to winning the first-ever Women’s Royal Rumble match. Asuka’s streak would eventually end after a staggering two years, six months, and two days in a classic with Charlotte Flair at WrestleMania 34.
276 Matches without a single loss is by far a WWE/WCW record. It trumps the second-longest streak, Goldberg’s famed 173-0 record, by over a hundred matches. The feats that Asuka has accomplished in her short time with WWE will likely go untouched for the rest of time. To insinuate that her inclusion on this list is solely for the sake of female representation is a discredit to all that she’s done. Because no one was ready for Asuka.
#8. Brock Lesnar
There’s a love-hate relationship between wrestling fans and Brock Lesnar and for good reason. When Brock is at his best he’s one of the most freakishly talented athletes in the history of sports and entertainment. At his worst he’s sitting at home, holding a world championship hostage for months at a time. If Lesnar was a full-time competitor, there’s no doubt that he would find himself much higher on this list. The fact that he’s been a part-timer since his return in 2012 has to be considered, so the Beast Incarnate finds himself averaging out at the #8 spot.
It really is a shame we didn’t get to see more of Brock over the last seven years. His matches with AJ Styles (Survivor Series 2017), Daniel Bryan (Survivor Series 2018), CM Punk (SummerSlam 2013), and his triple threat encounter with John Cena & Seth Rollins (Royal Rumble 2015) are some of the best WWE matches of the decade. No one in 2019 dominated WWE’s Male division quite like the beast. He’s rarely lost a match since his return, and that includes ending the Undertakers legendary 21-0 undefeated streak at WrestleMania 30. That’s the most impressive accomplishment on this list by a wide margin.
Many make the argument that Brock has done more harm than good to the current WWE product and that his five part-timer world title reigns have taken away prestige from the belts. While there may be some validity to those comments, it doesn’t change the fact that Lesnar, for better or worse, has left an undeniable mark on the wrestling world over the last ten years.
#7. Seth Rollins
While he hasn’t been the most popular guy around over the past year or so, it would be unfair to deny how integral Seth Rollins has been to WWE over the last 10 years. After a 200+ day reign as ROH World Champion in 2010, he signed his WWE developmental contract and never looked back. It was clear from early on in Rollins’ tenure with WWE that the higher-ups in WWE, Triple H in particular, saw the future of the company in him. They gave him every opportunity to succeed, and he knocked every single one of them out of the park.
After being crowned the inaugural NXT Champion Rollins joined fellow developmental talents Dean Ambrose & Roman Reigns to create the shield; a group that would go on to become one of the greatest factions in WWE history. Once he went solo, he wasted no time solidifying himself as a star in the making. A win in the 2014 Money in the Bank Ladder match would catapult Rollins to the top of the main event scene. His crowning achievement would come at WrestleMania 31 where he became the first man to cash in his MITB contract on the grandest stage of them all. The image of “the architect” alone on the stage, hoisting the WWE Championship above his head to close out the show is one of the most memorable visuals in WrestleMania History.
Seth has proven himself to be one of the most consistent performers in the entire company. He’s won every title possible under the WWE banner, and he’s also the only man this decade to be ranked at the top of the PWI 500 two separate times (2015, 2019). It’s rare to see someone that has all the intangibles reach their full potential, but Seth Rollins has done just that. the architect will no doubt be a pillar of WWE’s main event scene for years to come.
#6. Daniel Bryan
No one was really sure how far Daniel Bryan would get in WWE. At the time of his signing the only “indie darling” to make serious strides at the top of the company was CM Punk. Bryan was just a small, wimpy looking vegan from Aberdeen, Washington. He was the antithesis of what a WWE Superstar looked like, but he went on to shatter every barrier and “glass ceiling” that the company had.
Bryan didn’t let the machine of WWE water down his style, and he maintained his streak of being the best technician in the world, according to the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, until 2013. Over the last 10 years he’s proven himself as professional wrestling’s swiss army knife. His time with Kane and the infamous Dr. Shelby segments are some of the funniest in WWE’s PG era. Bryan’s most recent eco-friendly world championship run displayed his ability to play that vicious heel character, and his run as the top face of the company in 2013 & 2014 is one of the greatest runs in WWE history (earning him the #1 ranking in the 2014 PWI 500). Bryan’s “Yes Movement” garnered mainstream attention, as did the WWE Universe’s plan to “hijack WrestleMania” if he wasn’t included in the main event.
Had it not been for Bryan’s career-threatening neck injury that sidelined him for the better part of four years, he would no doubt be in contention for the top spot on this list. No matter if he wanted you to cheer or boo, love him or hate him, or even make you cry over the outcome of a match, he evoked whatever emotion he wanted out of you because he was just that good. Simply put: Daniel Bryan is one of the greatest professional wrestlers of all time.
#5. Kenny Omega
The evolution of Kenny Omega has been a whirlwind ride over the last 10 years. From his days tearing up the Japanese jr. heavyweight division with the likes of Ryusuke Taguchi, Prince Devitt (AKA Finn Bálor), and Golden Lovers tag partner Kota Ibushi, it was clear that there was just something about the young kid from Winnipeg, Manitoba. Even after joining New Japan Pro Wrestling’s fabled Bullet Club and ousting the groups then-figurehead AJ Styles for control of the faction, there was still a barrier that Omega couldn’t seem to overcome. He was universally regarded as an Uber-athletic, naturally gifted professional wrestler but with the comedic antics & and goofy facial expressions of someone that could never break into the main event scene. Very few saw Kenny Omega as anything more than a career mid-carder.
That all changed on Night 18 of the 26th G1 Climax. Omega shocked the world by defeating former IWGP Heavyweight Champion Tetsuya Naito on the final night of B-Block action to advance to the finals of the tournament. It wasn’t just the result that sent the wrestling world into a frenzy though. The bout with Naito was truly a star-making performance for the Canadian grappler, garnering mainstream attention and a five-star rating from the WON. The silly, broom carrying goofball was gone. This match will go down in history as the death of “The Cleaner”, Omega’s semi-comedic Jr. heavyweight persona, and the birth of “The Best Bout Machine”. Kenny would go on to defeat Hirooki Goto in the finals, becoming the first gaijin, or non-japanese, G1 Climax winner in New Japan history.
What Omega would accomplish over the next three years is nothing short of iconic. His four singles matches against Kazuchika Okada are widely regarded as the greatest series of matches in the history of wrestling, including the first-ever six AND seven-star ratings awarded by the WON. Omega’s mainstream status was instrumental in New Japan’s expansion into the United States, and his US title match with the legendary Chris Jericho at WrestleKingdom 12 is the most profitable match New Japan has produced in at least 30 years (According to Jericho, New Japan World subscriptions skyrocketed an insane 35% a mere two days before the event, and the 35,000 sold tickets blew away NJPW’s expected number of 26K). Add that onto 13 other five-or-more star matches, a #1 ranking in the 2018 PWI 500 and his hand in the creation of All Elite Wrestling, the Uber-athletic, naturally gifted goofball from Winnipeg, Manitoba has left an undeniable mark on Japanese wrestling, and the wrestling world at large.
#4. Hiroshi Tanahashi
Hiroshi Tanahashi is the most valuable wrestler of his generation. Not one other top star, or “Ace”, has created the decade over decade growth that NJPW saw under his reign. When the Ace took over the reins as the companies top star in the mid-2000s, New Japan was going through the darkest period in it’s history. Tanahashi’s star was exactly the light that NJPW needed, and he lead New Japan to a time of prosperity and financial success never before seen in Japanese Wrestling. Throughout the past decade, the once in a century talent reaped the benefits of that accomplishment.
He could easily lay claim to the nickname “Mr. WrestleKingdom”, as the Ace competed in seven of the 10 WK main events from 2010 to 2019. His four IWGP Heavyweight Championship reigns (and 858 combined days as champion) helped turn the belt into the most prestigious world title in all of wrestling. Tanahashi also sports two separate G1 Climax tournament wins (2015, 2018) and three consecutive Wrestling Observer Wrestler of the year awards from 2011 to 2013. But what separates the Ace from the rest of his peers goes much deeper than his in-ring accomplishments.
What separates Hiroshi Tanahashi from everyone else can be summed up in one word: selflessness. Usually in wrestling, the top star of the company is prone to cling on to his throne for as long as humanly possible even if it is to the detriment of the company. But I would argue no wrestler in the last two decades has handled that situation with more grace than Tanahashi has over the last four years. His rivalry with Kazuchika Okada was instrumental in creating the worldwide superstar that the Rainmaker would become. He has also helped put over such stars as Kenny Omega, AJ Styles, Will Ospreay, and “Switchblade” Jay White. The Ace’s company-first attitude will be just as legendary as his work in the ring, and that’s saying something for one of the greatest wrestlers of all time.
#3. AJ Styles
The fact that AJ Styles comes in at #3 on this list should tell you just how great the past ten years of wrestling have been. His chameleon-like ability to adapt to his surroundings has led to him winning the top championship in almost every company he competed in throughout the 2010s. Styles spent the first few years of the decade solidifying his legacy as one of the greatest stars in TNA/Impact history. His “Evil Ways” persona is a fan favorite still to this day and his “Summer of Styles” storyline despite being a rip off of the infamous summer of Punk angle (albeit executed in a much better fashion), garnered the promotion some serious worldwide attention.
Once his contract with Impact had expired, Styles spent the next year and a half lighting the independent wrestling scene ablaze and signing with New Japan Pro-Wrestling. He immediately aligned himself with Bullet Club and went on to defeat Kazuchika Okada for the IWGP Heavyweight championship in his very first match at Wrestling Dontaku 2014. The addition of Styles into Bullet Club was the driving force in the faction’s mainstream growth. The group expanded from an underground darling into a worldwide phenomenon during Styles’ reign.
After finishing up with New Japan at WrestleKingdom 10 (In an instant classic with Shinsuke Nakamura no less), the Phenomenal One finally made the jump to WWE at the 2016 Royal Rumble. His WWE Debut broke the internet, being lauded by some as the biggest superstar WWE had signed since the purchase of WCW. It didn’t take Styles long to reach WWE’s Everest, as he defeated Dean Ambrose for the WWE Championship at Backlash 2016, a mere 231 days after his first match. AJ would go on to win the WWE title once again a year later, defeating Jinder Mahal for the belt in Manchester, England. On that night Styles became the first person to win the championship outside of the United States. He would hold the strap for a staggering 371 days, the third-longest reign of the 21st century.
To put into perspective just how consistently great AJ Styles has been this decade, in the ten installments of the PWI 500, Styles has placed in the top 5 an astounding SEVEN times (a #1 Ranking in 2010, and then a top 5 finish every year from 2014 to 2019). The Phenomenal One is this generation of wrestling’s greatest maverick. He was able to shed the “Big fish in a small pond” stigma, shatter barriers in the biggest company in the world, and solidify himself as not only one of the best wrestlers of his generation, but create a legitimate case as the greatest of all time.
#2. Kazuchika Okada
Allow me to set the scene: It’s WrestleKingdom 6. Hiroshi Tanahashi has just finished breaking the record for most consecutive IWGP Heavyweight Championship defenses of all time in the main event. As the Ace prepares for his usual post-event speech, he’s interrupted. Not by an old rival or an established star from another company, but some 24-year-old kid fresh off excursion named Kazuchika Okada. At that moment, standing in the presence of, at the time, the greatest IWGP Heavyweight Champion ever, The Rainmaker thanked Tanahashi for everything he had done for New Japan and announced to the world: “I’m taking over now”. One month later, Okada defeated Hiroshi Tanahashi in the middle of the ring. Ending the greatest IWGP Heavyweight title reign of all time.
That match, now known as the infamous “Rainmaker Shock”, put the entire wrestling world on notice. Many fans still didn’t see the hype though. This goofy-haired young boy is the one who ended the world title reign of the most prolific champion in history? Most even saw this as a huge mistake, and that there was no way that Okada could ever to live up to the other-worldly expectations placed upon him.
Boy, could they have been more wrong?
Over the next seven years, Kazuchika Okada would embark on a path of dominance the likes of which New Japan fans had never seen. He’s won the G1 Climax twice (2012, 2014), the New Japan Cup twice (2013, 2019), and has won the Tokyo Sports Best Bout Award six times. In 2017, Okada became the first Japanese-born wrestler to take the #1 spot in the PWI 500. The Rainmaker won the IWGP Heavyweight Championship five different times, with a grand total of over 1,700 days as champion (an average of 350 days per reign). While all of Okada’s reigns have been memorable, his fourth go with the strap is what truly cemented him as an icon of Japanese wrestling. He would defend the championship a record 13 times over nearly two years (720 days) from June 2016 to June 2018. He would lose the title to Kenny Omega in their legendary 2-Out-of-3 Falls match at Dominion 2018. A match that many (including Dave Meltzer, who gave the match a seven-star rating. The highest rated match in the history of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter.) consider being the greatest match in the history of wrestling.
Kazuchika Okada has accomplished everything there is to accomplish in New Japan Pro-Wrestling. He’s established himself as one of the most skilled in-ring performers of his era (19 five-star or better-rated matches by the WON), and he is arguably more popular than any Japanese star has ever been in the United States.
Oh, and he’s only 32 years old.
#1. Matt & Nick Jackson – The Young Bucks
It is difficult to put into words just how influential Matt and Nick Jackson have been over the last 10 years. The duo’s accomplishments over the last decade warrant a completely separate article. The effect The Young Bucks have had not just on the companies they’ve competed for, or even tag team wrestling as a whole, but wrestling as a medium in general, has changed the industry.
First, I’ll let their accomplishments speak for themselves: three-time Pro Wrestling Guerrilla Tag Team champions, with a combined 1,437 days with the belts (that is an average of 479 days per reign). Three-time Ring of Honor Tag Team champions. SEVEN-TIME IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team champions, along with a single reign as the IWGP Heavyweight Tag champs. Two-time PWI Tag Team of the Year (2017-2018), and five-time Wrestling Observer Tag Team of the Year (2014-2018). The two, at one point, held the ROH, PWG, & IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Tag Titles simultaneously. Over the last ten years, the Bucks have held a major tag team championship for 2,655 days, equaling out to over SEVEN YEARS holding a title belt.
When Matt & Nick formed “The Elite” faction with their best friend and Bullet Club stablemate Kenny Omega, they did so with the mantra “Change the World”. They took issue with the landscape and hierarchy of professional wrestling. In an era where tag team wrestling was little more than an afterthought, they wanted to prove that there was money to be made with tag wrestling. They proved just that in 2017 when ROH set a new attendance record of 3,500 fans for their biggest show of the year Supercard of Honor XI. The main event of the evening? The Young Bucks vs The Broken Hardys in a Ladder match for the ROH Tag Team titles.
The Jackson brothers also changed the art of making money as a pro wrestler forever. Before the Bucks, it was believed that signing with WWE was the only way to make a real living in wrestling. Both Nick & Matt were estimated to be millionaires in 2018, and that’s having never signed a WWE contract. This is in large part due to the insane amount of merchandise that the two have sold through Pro Wrestling Tees. According to a Forbes article from 2017, the Bucks made “similar money to a mid-card act on WWE’s Monday Night RAW to work for three companies that, combined, attract a sixth of WWE’s total live audience”. Not to mention the massive success of their youtube vlog series Being the Elite, which averages over 330 thousand views per week on YouTube. Their success on social media has proven that all one needs to make money in the wrestling world are a camera and a good work ethic.
The biggest feather in the cap for Matt & Nick is the creation of All Elite Wrestling. The two, along with fellow Elite member Cody Rhodes, were the driving force in the creation of the company. The goal in mind for AEW? To change the world. To give wrestling fans the mainstream alternative they’ve so desperately been clamoring for the last 20 years. They did just that, as AEW is a bigger success than anyone could have imagined in its first year.
The Young Bucks are the most polarizing act in wrestling. You generally get a mix of adoration and hate whenever the two are brought up in circles, but one thing is for certain: Nick & Matt Jackson have left a meteor sized mark on the world of wrestling. If I can sneak a Dark Knight reference in here; they’ve changed things forever, and there’s no going back.
And that…….is just too sweet.
(Sorry, I had to).
Follow me on Twitter: @TrentOsborneFS
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