Ever since Paul Heyman became the head writer of SmackDown, I’ve had a serious love affair with that show. Not only are Paul’s shows saving WWE from sinking even faster, but they saved SummerSlam from being a disaster.
Yeah sure, since then the PPV’s have gone back to having zero focus, but the wrestling matches are still good.
Actually, the matches are great. Lots of top-notch talents are getting the chance to shine, so I figured now would be a good time to narrow down what I feel are the top 5 in-ring performers in the WWE. Coincidentally, all happen to be SmackDown talents. I don’t mean to shortchange folks like Lance Storm, Christian, Booker T, RVD, and HHH, because all of them are good in the ring and I enjoy their work. But when your competition is the guys on SmackDown, it’s a little tough to make the top 5.
Honorable Mention: Chris Jericho
Before I get started with the list, I wanted to award the honorable mention award to Chris Jericho. His match with Kane last week sealed the deal, as he was a true 1-man show. There are lots of things Jericho does that are better than any of the guys listed below, but since he’s on Raw, he doesn’t get the chance to show it as often, and his opponents aren’t nearly as good. When he was on SmackDown, he was so good in his match with Hogan, that the Hulkster probably wishes he could wrestle him every night. I do think Jericho was more entertaining during 1999 and 2000, and maybe even during his WCW run, but he’s still one of the few bright spots on Raw. I love Fozzy and Chris is a heavy metal hero, but I bet he wishes he was back on SmackDown having what would surely be some of the best matches of his storied, internationally acclaimed career.
After the split in the spring, Edge was being groomed to be the top star. They teamed him with Hulk and Hogan indeed went out of his way to get Edge over as the next big star.
Since then, Edge hasn’t taken the world by storm, but no one else has either. He is, however, getting the biggest reactions of his career, and fans see him at a level above where he was before. In that sense, the rub from Hulk helped. What has helped even more is his ability to have excellent matches week after week.
Heyman has thankfully kept Edge away from the mic, for the most part. Edge isn’t a bad talker, but his speaking ability doesn’t match his wrestling ability. His voice and attitude don’t just come across as bad-ass, which is almost impossible to do when you’re a good-looking male (not that I’d know, of course). By shutting Edge up, it gives the beer-drinking Road Warrior-type fans less of a reason to hate him. So far, there has been no backlash toward Edge, although if he ever makes it to the next level, it’s inevitable.
Which is fine, because he makes a terrific heel. As a babyface this year, Edge has had incredible matches with Kurt Angle, Eddy Guerrero, and some memorable tag team matches with Benoit and even Chavo. His selling has improved a ton, his love of the game is unquestioned, and he’s not a pain in the ass to work with.
I’m not sure Edge can be a face of Austin proportions, but he’s a solid upper-mid-card guy who delivers every single time. As a heel, he could go all the way, but they oughtta save that for a couple years down the road. In the meantime, he’s building an impressive resume of incredible matches and honing his skills by learning from the best.
4. Rey Misterio, Jr.
Rey Rey has been a spectacular performer for 10 years now, and he’s still near his peak level. It is to Rey’s credit how well he was received upon his WWE debut, even without his buildup and elaborate entrance. Keeping him masked was about the best decision WWE made all year, and he gets one of the best 3 reactions in whatever arena he wrestles in. It’s not his size, it’s purely his ability.
While everyone attempts high spots, no one pulls them off like Misterio. He has been doing them for years, and has had his share of injuries. He did pack on some muscular pounds that he didn’t need, just like he did when he returned from surgery in the summer of ’98 at that Malone-DDP-Rodman-Hogan WCW PPV. It did slow him down a little, but he’s still amazing to watch.
It should be noted that Misterio has had some slip-ups since his return, but SmackDown guys get to have their stuff edited off TV, while the Raw guys don’t have that luxury. Even taking that into account, Rey has been on a roll this year. He should thank his lucky stars there’s a booker who pushes him smartly, and that his opponents are people he’s familiar with. Kurt Angle’s different style was a challenge, which they both overcame with great results. If he is matched up against guys like Kidman, Tajiri, Moore, Noble, Chavo, and Eddy (I smell a Halloween Havoc rematch), then it’s a Nitro glory period all over again. Throw in Juventud and maybe Spanky, and now we’re talkin’. He’s on the right track and has good support from the office, so let’s hope Rey breaks the size barrier in WWE and shoves it up McMahon’s ass.
3. Kurt Angle
Last year’s winner of the Observer’s “Most Outstanding Wrestler” award has only gotten better this year. With Heyman in charge, the goofiness is gone and Angle is portrayed as a legit athlete who the wrestlers respect. His interviews are still strong, and he’s so awesome in that ring. He’s the closest thing to Ric Flair when it comes to being the best all-around performer in wrestling. If it were up to me, I’d throw the belt on him and keep it there for years.
Kurt has had classics this year with Benoit, Misterio, and Edge. At first I hated his hair gone, but his bald head is growing on me (is that a weird sentence or what?). He has always had classics with people like Austin and Rock, but this time, his precision is so much better. Best of all, fans see him as a real threat, and he gets the best heel heat of anyone in wrestling right now. This is the man they want on top.
The future of Angle looks bright, as long as HHH stays on Raw and Heyman stays in power. The logical dream match is Lesnar vs. Angle at WrestleMania, but HHH is going to jockey for that spot (and he’ll get it). Even if that doesn’t happen, he has tons of solid opponents waiting for him on SmackDown. He loses a good lot of them, but manages to keep his heat. WWE is so ungodly lucky they stumbled upon this guy.
2. Chris Benoit
I almost put Benoit at #3, only because he was gone for much of the year and is still recovering from neck surgery. But his skill is so undeniable that it would be a crime to place him in any lower.
Chris has thankfully limited his use of flying headbutts, but even after 16 years in the game, he is STILL wrestling at peak level. He gets better each and every year, has taken insane amounts of punishment in ECW and Japan, and still remains incredible. When will he ever stop?
Heyman loves Benoit and is responsible for his developing more of a personality while he was in ECW (I can still picture those wringing hands). I don’t think Benoit will ever be a 1st class interview, but he is trying, and I don’t even think it matters anyway. Fans buy him as an incredible wrestler, after years and years of superb matches in every promotion that has ever had television. He has respect from the boys and agents, and is easy to work with (unless you’re Kevin Sullivan).
Benoit’s mat wrestling has been especially strong this year, and his SmackDown matches never disappoint. His tag team with Eddy got cut short, but doing so makes better use of another great talent, Chavo Guerrero. I hope creative gives Chris a good, solid direction and finally gives him a run on top. Heyman pushed for Benoit to get the title shot at Brock, but they went with Undertaker instead. I think putting Benoit in that spot right now would be a mistake, because he isn’t established as a top face yet, and Brock needs to beat Undertaker to establish more credibility (if ‘Taker cooperates, which is rare). Edge should then be Brock’s next opponent, not Benoit.
Right now it looks like a feud with Angle, as they are forced to team up. Seems interesting, but where does he go from there? We shall see, but with Heyman in charge, I know they’ll at least try something.
1. Eddy Guerrero
Eddy Guerrero has been one of the best workers in the world for over 10 years, and it has taken exactly that long for WWE to finally notice.
I’ve said this many times, but when I saw Eddy and Art Barr wrestle live for AAA, it was the most heat I had ever experienced at a house show. A year later, WCW broadcast their classic hair match on PPV as part of “When Worlds Collide.” Did WWF call and bring him in for a tryout? No. Did WCW? No. Only ECW did, and Eddy proceeded to engage in what would later live on in infamy as the “Malenko-Guerrero classics.”
WCW finally caught on and brought Eddy in. It wasn’t long before fans treated him as the top heel, with chants of “Eddy sucks, Eddy sucks” that upper management seemingly ignored as they pushed Prince Iukea and Steve McMichael to the moon. In 1997, Eddy had WCW’s best match of the year at Halloween Havoc with another guy on this list, Rey Misterio Jr.
Did WWF notice? Nope. They were too busy watching Steve Austin’s quarter hour ratings lose to Eddy’s.
After Sullivan got the book, Eddy ran for the hills with Benoit, Malenko, and Saturn to WWF. He got a good reaction, but injured himself badly on a frog splash spot that killed his momentum.
After a stint with Chyna and feuds that didn’t really go anywhere, Eddy was rightly terminated for doing things he shouldn’t have been doing. I was disappointed, but WWF did what it had to do. Eddy shot himself in the foot with that one, but a slew of stellar performances on the indie scene got him his gig back in WWF. It took him awhile, but he straightened out, overcame his personal demons, and was back in top form.
One amazing promo with Rock later, and everyone suddenly took notice. After an incredible ladder match with RVD, they took even more notice. After a switch to SmackDown with Benoit that was treated with main event hype, Eddy has been on the biggest roll of his life. His tag team matches with Benoit & Chavo against the likes of Edge & Rikishi have continually stolen the show and dazzled crowds. He was so good against Edge that he got a standing ovation based purely on his ring work; simply UNHEARD of in WWE. Foley couldn’t even get that standing O after he killed himself against Undertaker.
Even with a nasty respiratory infection, Eddy is pumping out classic match after classic match, and he’s as good as ever. Not only is that amazing, but his conquering of his demons should be an inspiration (as well as Regal’s) to anyone in wrestling who has bad habits that need to be kicked.
To quote Jim Ross from his Ross Report a few weeks ago: “Eddy Guerrero is amazing.”
Good eye, Jim. But he was amazing 10 years ago, too. Good of you and your splendid company to finally notice.
For those who haven’t noticed, old-style babyface/heel booking is rejuvenating dead crowds who flock to SmackDown, and patience will pay off as long as they stick to that formula. That goes against everything Vince Russo believed in.
Meanwhile Raw, which has plenty of Russo elements, has been met with dead crowds and a viewing audience that goes up and down like a seismograph machine. SmackDown’s audience grows with almost every segment. What is the lesson to be learned here?