As was the case in the ‘90s, the 2000s spelled a significant change to the world of professional wrestling. Gone were the days of WCW and ECW, both shuttering their doors near the start of the new decade.
With the Monday Night Rating Wars officially over, WWE gradually began to wind down its famous Attitude Era, ushering in a new generation of wrestlers who competed in what later became known as the Ruthless Aggression Era from 2002 to 2008.
Later still, WWE would tweak its programming to draw in a larger family-oriented audience, resulting in the dawn of the PG Era.
As WWE changed, so too did its competition. With WCW and ECW no longer in the picture, new startups like Ring of Honor and Total Nonstop Action began offering indie wrestlers a more lax environment to hone their craft — many of whom eventually became stars in their own right.
With how much wrestling talent there was in the world in the 2000s, it’s interesting — not to mention highly challenging — to determine some of the biggest stars of the decade. After some significant deliberation, here are 15 of the greatest wrestlers active in the 2000s.
15. Jeff Hardy
Jeff Hardy made his name as a tag team competitor alongside his brother, Matt, as one of half the Hardy Boyz. Throughout the Attitude Era, the Hardyz rose through the ranks of the WWE roster, becoming one of the most popular teams of their day — and one of the most decorated.
By 2002, both brothers began focusing more heavily on their singles career. After a somewhat tumultuous start for Jeff on Raw in 2002 and a fairly decent run in TNA in the mid-2000s, the younger Hardy returned to WWE for the most successful period of his career.
Capturing the Intercontinental Championship and, later, the WWE Championship and the World Heavyweight Championship, he was elevated to career stardom, never once slowing down his high-speed pace.
14. Rey Mysterio
Before signing with WWE, Rey Mysterio was considered one of the hottest talents on WCW’s roster. Definitively one of the best Cruiserweights the company had ever seen, WWE’s acquisition of Mysterio in 2002 was huge news.
Fortunately, unlike most other WCW Cruiserweights who arrived in WWE, the company found a place for Mysterio as a mid-card performer and tag team competitor. However, it’s his 2006 push and world title reign that fully capitalized on Mysterio’s immense in-ring talent.
Compared to the other world champions that came prior, Mysterio showed that you didn’t have to be the biggest, strongest competitor to capture people’s attention. It was a revelation that opened up the door for practically every high-flying wrestler that followed, some of whom even appear on this list.
13. Brock Lesnar
When Brock Lesnar stepped into a WWE ring for the first time in 2002, he immediately made fans stand up and notice him. A hulking giant with a physique like a bodybuilder, he was fast, he was agile, he was unbelievably strong, and he completely decimated every person he faced in a match.
Truly earning the nickname of WWE’s Next Big Thing, Lesnar quickly defeated some of the biggest names in wrestling, winning the WWE Championship less than six months after his debut.
His initial run in WWE was a short one, concluding with Lesnar’s departure in 2004, but his impact on the company and his impressive track record both speak for themselves.
12. CM Punk
CM Punk arrived in WWE in 2006. At the time, he was one of the first of a new generation of wrestlers who came about in the independent wrestling circuit, rising to prominence in TNA and ROH. In a way, he set the stage for every significant indie star who arrived to WWE that followed, from Bryan Danielson and AJ Styles to Seth Rollins and Samoa Joe.
But that’s hardly why CM Punk’s name earned a prominent spot on this list. From a promo standpoint, he was and continues to be one of the best, vocally on par with Roddy Piper, The Rock, and Stone Cold before him.
His gimmick was always great, but his fantastic speaking skills set him apart as a one-of-a-kind performer, and a true asset to any company he appeared in.
11. Chris Jericho
The most remarkable thing about Chris Jericho is his ability to change and stay with the times. The David Bowie of pro wrestling, he can take a gimmick that’s worked well for him in the past and completely strip it away, becoming a radically new character in the process.
Jericho was always an entertaining mid-carder in the ‘90s, but the 2000s began with his first major push, becoming the first Undisputed WWF Champion after beating The Rock and Stone Cold in a single night.
But even for the remainder of the decade, Jericho still had plenty left in the tank, winning numerous championships in the years to follow, and creating arguably his best gimmick as the suit-wearing, straight-faced, “Best in the World At What He Does,” he professed himself to be.
10. Triple H
From an athletic perspective, Triple H may have been at the top of his game (no pun intended) in the ‘90s and early 2000s. While his career-threatening quad injury in 2001 may have significantly slowed him down, Triple H still maintained his place as the most dominant heel of the early to mid-2000s, becoming more of a violent brawler as time progressed.
With his now iconic Evolution stable by his side, Triple H presided over a reign of terror that saw him defeat some of the Ruthless Aggression Era’s most noteworthy wrestlers.
His later 2000s career — including his reunion with D-Generation X partner Shawn Michaels — is also worthy of praise. Still, his exceptional ability as a villain continues to define the better part of his career.
9. Bryan Danielson
Like CM Punk, Bryan Danielson was a wholly different kind of wrestler in the 2000s. The new generation’s equivalent of WCW’s Dean Malenko, he became one of the main breakout stars of ROH by the middle of the decade.
After an unremarkable early run in WWE in 2003, Danielson returned to the company in 2010, billed now as Daniel Bryan. Despite WWE not slating him to become a top-tier competitor on the roster, Danielson’s immense popularity among fans led to his becoming a championship player.
From a talent standpoint, he’s still considered one of the best in pro wrestling — and will undoubtedly go down as one of the greats of the current era.
Along with his Evolution stablemate, Randy Orton, Batista was considered one of the future stars of WWE in 2003. As Evolution’s Animal and de facto enforcer, he was a gifted brawler who also had terrific agility and speed for a man his size.
With his break from Evolution in 2005, Batista became one of the main faces of WWE in the mid-2000s, his momentum giving way to now classic feuds with Triple H, The Undertaker, and Edge.
Nowadays, most people probably know him for his portrayal of Drax in the MCU, but even before that, Batista was the quintessential Destroyer in WWE, towering over his opponents as one of the strongest wrestlers in the business.
7. Randy Orton
While Batista rose to the ultimate career heights on Smackdown, his former ally, Randy Orton, did the same on Raw. The moment he was forcefully kicked out of Evolution, Randy Orton was destined to become a major player in WWE — something he quickly managed to accomplish in practically no time at all.
Whether he was paired with Edge, acted as the leader of his own faction, or was on his own, Orton was one of the mainstay heels in WWE by the mid-2000s.
His time as the Legend Killer and all the feuds he engaged in under that gimmick are each amazing in their own right, with each of his title runs as the Viper at the end of the decade also fun to watch.
6. AJ Styles
From the early 2000s to mid-2010s, AJ Styles was often regarded as the greatest pro wrestler outside of WWE. Any company he appeared in helped elevate it, whether he wrestled for ROH, NJPW, or TNA — the promotion he practically carried on his back for the better part of a decade.
In the simplest terms, with his high-flying moveset, technical prowess, and charismatic presentation, AJ Styles was a wrestler nobody had seen the likes of before.
Never before had a high-flier been portrayed as the principal star of a company, but Styles changed all that, setting the stage for numerous wrestlers that followed, most especially today’s Kenny Omega and Will Ospreay.
5. Kurt Angle
It speaks volumes about Kurt Angle’s in-ring ability and character work that he was able to directly compete in popularity against the likes of The Rock and Stone Cold in the Attitude Era. However, when you look at Angle’s amateur wrestling background and the fact that he won the Olympic gold medal for the sport (with a broken neck, no less!), it really shouldn’t be too surprising.
Exiting the Attitude Era, Angle was regularly switched between an upper midcard position to main event status on Smackdown in the early to mid-2000s. No matter the role he occupied or how much screentime he was granted, though, the gold medalist still gave it his all in every match he competed in.
It didn’t matter if he was booked for a singles bout against Rey Mysterio at the opening of Summerslam 2002 or was competing against Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania — his performances consistently stole the spotlight on a weekly basis.
4. Eddie Guerrero
Few wrestlers have the same level of charisma as Eddie Guerrero. One of the best Cruiserweights in WCW back in the ‘90s, Guerrero would go on to become one of the biggest wrestlers in WWE by 2004. Winning the WWE Championship from Brock Lesnar in what is now considered one of the biggest upsets in pro wrestling history, it was an inspirational moment not only in Guerrero’s career, but perhaps in all of sports entertainment.
Aside from his incredible technical skills, the thing that Eddie Guerrero so special was his undeniable comedic skills in the ring. Putting his signature catchphrase of lying, cheating, and stealing to win to the test, Guerrero regularly used all three to get a victory over his opponents, leading to some of the most hilarious moments in WWE television at the time.
Like so many of the greats, his life ended all too early, but he managed to accomplish so much in the time he was given, and for that, we’re forever grateful.
3. John Cena
No wrestler remains as closely tied to the Ruthless Aggression Era or the succeeding PG Era quite like John Cena. The top talent of WWE from 2005 to the end of the 2010s, he enjoyed the same career success and stardom as Hulk Hogan and Stone Cold Steve Austin had previously.
Once called the “Babe Ruth of WWE” by Vince McMahon, Cena demonstrated all the core qualities you’d expect to see in a major talent in the company for his time. He had a stringent work ethic, clear in-ring talent, was gifted in promos, and was a routinely safe worker in his matches.
All of this and more led his rapid rise to the top of WWE, punctuated by numerous championship victories throughout his career — including 16 world title reigns.
2. The Undertaker
The Undertaker may have been a great wrestler in the 1990s, but by the 2000s, he had become a legendary one. Beginning the decade with the influential American Badass gimmick he’d introduced in 2000, he continued to face off against the new generation of WWE wrestlers, from John Cena to Brock Lesnar.
From the 2004 return of the Deadman gimmick onwards, though, is when the Phenom became as iconic a performer as he is commonly considered today.
Regularly competing for the world championship to defending his famed undefeated streak at WrestleMania on an annual basis, The Undertaker was at the top of his game throughout the 2000s, delivering some of the best matches of all time.
1. Shawn Michaels
The moment Shawn Michaels’ spine crashed off the edge of a coffin in his 1998 Royal Rumble bout with The Undertaker, it seemed that his career was pretty much over. His back broken, he took the next four years off to recuperate, with the possibility of a return extremely unlikely, to say the least.
However, in one of the greatest comeback stories in wrestling there is, Michaels made his incredible return to in-ring competition in 2002, facing his old friend turned bitter nemesis Triple H in what would later become one of the defining feuds of the 2000s.
From there, Michaels enjoyed arguably the greatest run of his career, feuding with practically everyone on this list in some of the best rivalries of the decade. He may not have been his young plucky self anymore, but somehow he still dialed each of his matches up to 11 time and time again.
This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.