Mishal takes a look at a favorite topic of many: Wrestling’s Top 5 Greatest Talkers! Who made the list…and who was snubbed?
We often forget that more than just being an in-ring sport, professional wrestling, as with any form of entertainment, is equally about showmanship & engaging with the live audience in front of you.
As good as a wrestler as someone can be, it often amounts to very little if their skills on a microphone can’t hold the audience’s attention enough. Engaging with an audience through promos (whether scripted or unscripted) is essential to developing character, as well as a connection with an audience that is deeper than just the moves you can perform in a ring. Microphone skills add a tonne of charisma or charm to a character, and in the process makes the entire persona of that specific character far more well-rounded.
In the past, we’ve had our fair share of wrestlers who lack the skills on a microphone & exchange that for what they can achieve in the ring, most recently the likes of Ricochet, Braun Strowman, Nia Jax, Jeff Hardy, Bobby Lashley to name a few are talents who consistently disappoint when handed a microphone and rely on other aspects of their character to make up for the blunder. These talents aren’t alone either, as lack of ability in terms of promos isn’t something new to the business, but something we pay much more attention to nowadays with how wrestling is organized.
Companies like WWE are known to rely far more on scripted promos with their talent, as well as moulding them under a certain ‘style’ to place them into the boundaries of how they want their talents to generally address an audience. Other brands such as AEW or NJPW, however, have brought attention to just how effective an unscripted promo can be when you allow talent to fully embrace their characters without shackles, giving you a better feel for who they are & generally crafting content that gels a lot better with a live audience. Guys like Cody, Chris Jericho, Jon Moxley & Brodie Lee are proof of just how restricted their specific talents were when under the WWE banner & how effective creative freedom can be to a talent trying to redefine themselves.
None of this is necessarily a nudge on WWE though, because even with guidelines, there are some workers who have excelled, and continue to excel within that kind of environment. Bray Wyatt, Seth Rollins, The Miz, Edge, Randy Orton, Drew McIntyre & MVP have been turning in some of the best work of their careers as of late, displaying just how good talent can be working within the ‘WWE style’ as long as you embrace what you’re given to work with.
Where this has brought me to as of late, especially with watching a tonne of content over the last two weeks or so, is just who the standard-bearers are, at least in my mind. The best to cut a promo is sometimes remembered simply for that, their ability to talk at times almost completely overshadows their abilities in the ring due to some of their best moments being behind a microphone, as we’ll see.
So without further ado, let’s dive into wrestlings 5 greatest talkers of all time!
A ‘few’ Honourable Mentions for Greatest Talker Of All Time
‘Macho Man’ Randy Savage – An endless stream of catchphrases, an accent that lives throughout history & charisma that anyone, a fan of professional wrestling or not would consider iconic, there isn’t a promo this man touched that didn’t result in cheers.
Paul Heyman – Beyond being the mouth for Brock Lesnar, Heyman in his own right is one of the few I can think of who’s never cut a bad promo. His work under the ECW brand in the 90s, as a commentator for WWE in the early 2000s or whenever he’s intimidating a plethora of opponents before facing ”His client”, few in today’s wrestling scene can hold an audience the way Heyman does and has for over two decades.
Edge – In terms of intensity, it’s hard to find more intense than the ‘Rated R Superstar’. His work over the last six months or so has been amongst the best of his career, but seeing him opposite the likes of John Cena, Matt Hardy & The Undertaker in the past is proof of how methodical the man is on a microphone. There’s an intense, animal-like quality he brings to his promos that is almost unmatchable today that places him levels above most talent.
Bobby ‘The Brain’ Heenan – Wrestling’s greatest manager, one of wrestling’s greatest heels & one of the most unlikeable bad guys I can think of. Heenan is responsible for some of the company’s most iconic moments of the early 90s, as well as being by the side of some of the industries standard-bearing talents (most notably Andre The Giant himself). Heenan & his mouth are a reminder of just how impactful a manager can be when utilized in the right manner.
‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin – Has there ever been a wrestler that’s said so little yet garnered a reaction louder than 95% of wrestlers to have ever existed just based on a few catchphrases alone? Austin never had the most varied promo work, but his style was the personification of taking a simple, tried & tested formula, injecting it with an incredible amount of personality & bringing an audience into the palm of his hands with every word he uttered. Many others certainly have a more complex promo style behind their characters, Austin was straight to the point & never lost any audience member for a moment.
And The Top 5 Wrestling’s Greatest Talkers are…
5. CM Punk
”You can’t leave a mark on the champ’s face. Come Royal Rumble, understand, when you step in the ring with me, your arms are just too short to box with God.”
I’d imagine this is some kind of ‘hot take’ depending on where you stand. Many fans will have a number of others names in place of CM Punk, but for myself, he’s arguably the best of my generation as far as cutting a promo goes. Whether its pre-written material, an unplanned ‘pipebomb’ during a faithful evening in Las Vegas or simply engaging with the crowd, few over the last number of years talk the way CM Punk did every night he was handed a microphone.
Punk’s ‘Straightedge Saviour’ persona was ideal to getting him this high on the list, before that he was somewhat of an oddity. From mid-2009 this all changed, as the man found his voice, his groove & catapulted himself into the main event position he’d been chasing for almost half a decade at that point. Everything following the infamous evening in 2011 resulted in genuine gold coming out of the man’s mouth, positioning himself as the voice of a volatile & frustrated fanbase, calling all the shots on what we had an issue with & (in kayfabe) exposing the business for the circus it truly was. His style was a bizarre blend between Steve Austin, Roddy Piper & Paul Heyman, seemingly taking aspects of their work but rather than mimicking it, infusing it with his blend of pissed off honesty, reflecting the real-life frustrations he had, and still has with the product to this very day based on interviews.
His work alongside the likes of John Cena, Triple H, The Rock, Jeff Hardy, Paul Heyman & Chris Jericho is still amongst the finest of the last decade, setting an incredibly high bar for anyone to follow with the plethora of excellence he left behind.
While it was all a gimmick at the end of the day denying the legitimacy of Punk’s promos is insane in retrospect, since a lot of what he said holds ground in 2020, particularly with the state of the current product as we know it. Punk was a professional wrestling martyr, one who spoke years ahead of so many others, and paved the way for more risky, edgier promos in the wrestling world that we see far more often these days, particularly outside of WWE. More than just that, Punk always felt like the voice fans could listen to without sounding like the robot so many others do when they’re given time to express themselves, and that in my eyes is where he stands out in the crop of talent we see today.
4. ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper
”Just when you think you know the answers, I change the questions.”
In my mind, the key to a great villain in professional wrestling is your ability on the microphone. Brutal in-ring action & dirty tactics are fine and dandy, but the ability to insult, degrade & test the audience is what brings out the best in a bad guy. Nobody in the history of the business tested their audiences better than ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper did. Piper was despicable, vile, loud, obnoxious, annoying, relentless, but so good at what he was doing that you just had to love him for the talent he oozed every time he opened his mouth.
Piper understood just what made an audience tick, especially in his era. He never held back on pushing the boundaries set in front of him, despite what you may think of his actions. Every promo Piper cut took it up a notch, which only got worse when ‘Pipers Pit’ became a staple of the WWE in the mid-80s. As a host, Piper was handed free reign to insult & abuse any set of talents that were sent his way, but nothing he ever did felt cheap, it was all timed & measured with precision, unlike so much of today’s heel work on the mic.
Even in his later days following retirement, Piper was just as formidable with words as any newcomer. But rather than playing the heel, Piper used his talents to enhance a variety of names, from John Cena to Roman Reigns, he made everyone & everything look like a million bucks across him in the ring. Sometimes his talents were wasted for the sake of simple filler, but for the most part, those in charge understood the magic this man created in the ring just with words alone.
3. Ric Flair
“To be the man, you gotta beat the man.”
Everyone deep down, whether they want to admit it or not, wishes they possessed the charisma, charm & energy that is carried by ‘The Nature Boy’ Ric Flair. Flair is a once in a lifetime character, which isn’t easy to achieve in any medium of entertainment. He’s one that will never be replicated regardless of all the attempts we’ve seen over the last number of decades. From The Miz, Alberto Del Rio, Jay Lethal (which is arguably the best imitation in all of wrestling) or even ‘The Notorious’ Conor McGregor who tries to pretend what he does is original even though one man was 30 years ahead of his time. There, thankfully, will never be another.
But beyond being one of the best workers to strap up a pair of boots, Flair’s mouth was his real weapon. He was the king of trash talk, the king of hype & the unofficial President of wrestling catchphrases. His ‘woo’ chant lives on to this very day, heard in nearly every match, on every show without fail, showing just how transcendent the mans talents were despite the gap between generations. On top of that, Flair has cut an array of promos that set the bar on how to carry yourself as ‘larger than life’ when the industry was carried by personalities bigger than themselves. You may think Flair’s style was brash, cocky, self-indulgent, but that’s how well he played his character, you never doubted the man as anything but what he looked like on-screen.
Every single time Flair uttered a word, you knew he had to listen. Flair, much like the fans, knew he was better than everyone around him, but the sacrifices he made for the business only showed with age, as he’s one of the few examples of a superstar whos promos didn’t just get better as the years went by, he was able to do the one thing that wrestling thrives on, evolve. His trash talk was never stuck in the 1970s or 1980s, it laid the groundwork for how to bash an opponent in the 21st century.
Flair’s contribution to wrestling goes so much further than simply a few incredible promos, but they’ve changed the very nature of the business as we know it. At the very least, we know that his talents aren’t the last we’ll see, because another Flair is quickly establishing herself as a solid follow-up to a legacy that makes it difficult for anyone to find words to go up against.
2. Dusty Rhodes
“I have wined and dined with kings and queens and I’ve slept in alleys and dined on pork and beans.”
Honestly, I could just spend the next few hours quoting ‘The American Dream’ Dusty Rhodes. Beyond being an incredible in-ring performer or professional wrestler, Dusty Rhodes was one of the most inspiring human beings I’ve ever come across. The heart & soul he possessed for the industry is the kind of thing each of us should dream of holding for the thing we’re most passionate about, and this showed every single time he stepped out through the curtain, but in particular when he spoke to those in the crowd. He ate, breathed & slept professional wrestling, which is why he’s one of the most pivotal names in the industry today.
Dusty’s abilities on the microphone were so good because he essentially was what most people want, a relatable figure, a man of the people & someone who has been through the same struggles as them. Dusty had been through all of it, from the working-class family, going through ‘hard times’ (as his iconic promo suggested) & always facing off against the odds of those in a higher position than himself. He was by no means a small competitor, but Dusty was the definitive underdog in the 1980s, rallying every audience behind him to reactions few in this day & age can receive just because of how perfect the timing of his character was. The character of Dusty Rhodes was a reflection of the struggles the American working class have long been under, but unlike so many other attempts, the genuine nature of him as a person helped with every word he uttered, you were a part of his journey just as much as he was & the power of that sensation is unmatchable as a fan or casual viewer.
His endless array of incredible promos should be discussed on their own rather than forced in here, but everyone should take some time to study the work the man accomplished at his apex. It’s a body of work that so many can learn from, remaining the standard-bearer for how to cut a babyface promo, even today.
1. The Rock
”I know the answer to that. 2+2? Thomas Jefferson, Sucka!”
I’ll be honest, I tried my best, my very hardest, not to put The Rock at the top of this list. Not because I don’t love The Rock, because I certainly do, but because this choice just felt too easy, too standard. At the top of everyone’s list is always The Rock when it comes to professional wrestling, in any discussion about the industry. He’s one of the most important professional wrestlers to have ever existed, an era-defining superstar who changed the very nature of entertainment. More than that, he’s a pop culture phenomenon who everyone, everyone, has heard of unless you live under a rock.
But as hard as I tried to justify another superstar holding this spot, The Rock is just ridiculously good. Some would say too good at what he can achieve on the microphone. Once he broke out of the abysmal shell of a character that was ‘Rocky Maivia’, you just knew something special was emerging, the kind of special this business only gets once. The Rock’s new-found charisma, attitude, witness & insane confidence in front of the camera with a microphone in his hand made him an icon long before the internet came around to clip every word he said & lump it onto social media. The Rock was a trendsetter, heck, he invented a word that is now recognized around the world in every dictionary, trying to be more iconic than that is quite the task.
Even though I’ll admit some of his more recent material hasn’t come across with the same style or nuance he possessed in the late 1990s to early 2000s, nobody cuts a promo like ‘The Great One’, and nobody ever will. More than being a master of words & language, The Rock knew how to connect with an audience like very few others, the bond he has with wrestling fans is unique & almost exclusive to only himself, having them on the edge of their seats at all times, hinging on every word he has to say regardless of how absurd it may be. The number of catchphrases he’s coined, the superstars he’s humiliated through just a few breathes of air & the arenas he’s sent into a frenzy just through his signature catchphrases, there will never be another who can engage an audience like Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson.
I understand this choice may not be anything particularly new, or different to what so many other analysts & fans say in regards to this discussion, but when someone is as good as The Rock, it’s only fair that we acknowledge it rather than deny his brilliance.
What do you think of the list? Anyone left out? Head on over to our Facebook Group to discuss!