The 2010s were an exciting time to be a wrestling fan. With WWE continuing to hold onto its position as the world's top wrestling promotion, rival brands suddenly began to sprout up from around the globe.
Across the Pacific, New Japan underwent a significant change, reasserting its place as the number two wrestling company in the world by the mid-2010s. Ring of Honor and Impact continued to attract indie wrestlers like Adam Cole and Kyle O'Reilly, with WWE launching a similar third promotion in the form of NXT. Added to that was the arrival of the newest promotion, AEW, which has become the first serious competition to WWE's ratings since WCW in the early 2000s.
From veteran WWE talents to wrestlers who headlined NJPW, ROH, and AEW pay-per-view events, here are some of the greatest wrestlers to compete in the 2010s.
It's not enough that Finn Bálor was one of the mainstay stars of NJPW during the early part of the decade. Upon leaving the promotion, Bálor successfully transitioned to WWE, spearheading the company's then-experimental NXT brand as the first prominent face of the promotion.
A former Junior Heavyweight Champion in NJPW and the longest-reigning NXT Champion thus far, Bálor's achievements in the 2010s tend to be overshadowed by his underutilized booking in the late '10s and early '20s. In his prime, however, this Irish high-flier (and founding member of Bullet Club) was and continues to be a force to be reckoned with, regardless of the promotion he wrestles in.
Whatever criticisms you have around CM Punk and his eventful (and sometimes controversial) run in AEW, back in the early 2010s, Punk was one of the foremost reasons to tune into WWE. A sharp contrast to the Hulk Hogan-esque booking of John Cena, Punk had the skill of an indie star and the promo skills of “Stone Cold” Steve Austin.
Brash, self-assured, and rebellious, he lit a fire in WWE that had been out since the Attitude Era, making wrestling fun again for the first time in years. He might've quit when the decade was still young, memorably walking out on the promotion in 2014, but there's no question he left a lasting impression on wrestling fans worldwide at the time.
Like Punk walking out of the company in 2014, Brock Lesnar abruptly leaving WWE in 2004 seemed to be a sign that Lesnar would never again wrestle in Vince McMahon's promotion. That being said, when Lesnar's entrance music once again played on Raw in 2012, the audience in attendance and at home were left speechless, especially as they watched Lesnar decimate John Cena before their eyes.
Ironically, Lesnar's dominance of Cena set the tone for his entire run in WWE so far. During the next decade, Lesnar would be a leading competitor in WWE's world title picture, regularly facing some of the company's biggest stars like Cena, AJ Styles, Seth Rollins, and the Undertaker. His move set was considerably watered down, the younger, athletic Beast Incarnate having slowed a little in the decade away from WWE. But love him or hate him, Lesnar's booking in WWE has been nothing short of brilliant.
The picture-perfect definition of a WWE loyalist, Randy Orton managed to evolve from a prospective future star in WWE to one of the company's most-recognized talents. Graduating from a secondary championship contender to a world-title competitor by the close of the 2000s, Orton's path to career stardom was set in stone at the onset of the 2010s.
Like his longtime rival, John Cena, Orton's place in WWE throughout the decade was marked by entertaining feuds with some of the company's major up-and-coming talent—Guys like Daniel Bryan, Dean Ambrose, Seth Rollins, and Roman Reigns. Ending the era as an established veteran, Orton was a dependably great wrestler able to bring out the best in his opponents — the rare kind of talent who had chemistry with nearly everyone he squared off against.
It'd be an exaggeration to say that, by the 2010s, Chris Jericho's best years were very much behind him. Physically, Jericho was beginning to slow down a bit at this point. But what he lost in physicality and athleticism, he more than made up for in personality.
The David Bowie of pro wrestling, Jericho's strength as a wrestler has always been his ability to recreate himself from the ground up, embodying new characters and gimmicks drastically different from any he'd inhabited. This unique characteristic can be found in his comedic work as Kevin Owens' best friend in WWE, his Painmaker run in NJPW, to AEW's Champion at the conclusion of the 2010s.
Roman Reigns' low placement on this list is more reflective of his abysmal handling than his incredible work ethic or in-ring track record. A consistently great wrestler in terms of his strength and endurance, Reigns was slated to become the main star of WWE by the mid-2010s — a decision met with extreme backlash from fans everywhere.
Reigns' recent run as the Tribal Chief has been universally praised by viewers and critics alike. Still, it was clear that, in the 2010s, fans weren't interested in seeing another two-dimensional face positioned as the company's top star. (Especially when Reigns' was slated to win over other, more popular wrestlers like Dean Ambrose and Daniel Bryan.) As a wrestler, it was obvious he was fantastic, but WWE's decision to aggressively push him to be John Cena's successor killed any momentum he slowly managed to build up.
As the man who betrayed his stable mates in The Shield — selling them out for a guaranteed title reign as WWE Champion — Seth Rollins was immediately booked to do big things in the company, less than a year after turning his back on Reigns and Ambrose, Rollins had climbed to the top of WWE programming — winning Money in the Bank and the World Heavyweight Championship and beating such stars as Ambrose, Brock Lesnar, John Cena, and Sting.
Rollins' handling in the company was nothing short of impeccable compared to Reigns. His initial title reign and run with The Authority were both fantastic, as was his eventual feud with The Authority's leader, Triple H.
Even after a disappointing run as the Universal Champion, Rollins still managed to end the decade on a high note under his Monday Night Messiah gimmick on Raw. Between that and his current gimmick as the Visionary, it almost seems like Rollins is set to succeed in Jericho's place as the man of one thousand faces.
No doubt an obvious choice, John Cena is one of the more perplexing wrestlers whose career is tough to sum up when looking at the 2010s. At the start of the decade, he was the main wrestler in the company — comparable to Hulk Hogan in the '80s and Stone Cold in the '90s. But as his movie star seemed to be taking off, Cena began to wind down his tenure as WWE's top star by 2018.
Like Roman Reigns, Cena's reputation as a wrestler tends to be compounded by WWE aggressively marking him as the company's version of a Golden Age DC superhero. But his feuds against CM Punk, Seth Rollins, Randy Orton, Daniel Bryan, and AJ Styles were some of the best work Cena had done since his 2000s matches with Shawn Michaels and Edge, making him a major asset for WWE at the time.
Few wrestlers' stories are as inspirational as Cody Rhodes. The prodigal son of wrestling legend Dusty Rhodes seemed destined to repeat his brother's lackluster run in WWE under his embarrassing Stardust gimmick. But, unhappy with his creative direction in the company, Rhodes left — setting the stage for his momentous achievements throughout the rest of the 2010s.
Within the span of a few years, Rhodes managed to hone his in-ring abilities and promo skills, solidifying his place as a worthwhile wrestler in the indie circuit. Taking what he'd learned to NJPW, ROH, and NJPW, Rhodes continued to prove his naysayers wrong and his believers right, showing that he had the same inherent talent previously possessed by his late father.
To top off an already fantastic period in Rhodes' career, Rhodes finished the 2010s doing the impossible: starting a wrestling promotion that acted as a direct rival to WWE. Criticisms over his booking decisions aside, his consistent physical performances in AEW helped elevate the company to the heights it enjoys.
He has since returned to WWE, won the 2023 Royal Rumble, and is headlined Wrestlemania.
In the 2000s, NJPW had become a shadow of its former self, lacking the same status and reputation it commanded in the '70s. As the company began to salvage what it could, NJPW needed a new generation of wrestlers to build its brand.
To fill that void was Hiroshi Tanahashi, NJPW's proverbial “Ace” in the hole. As crucial as fellow wrestlers like Shinsuke Nakamura were in getting NJPW up and running, no wrestler was as critical to NJPW's success as Tanahashi.
Serving as NJPW's version of John Cena, Tanahashi became the face of the company in the 2010s, winning the IWGP Heavyweight Championship on several occasions and having several five-star matches with practically every major star who stepped through NJPW's doors.
When looking at his time in WWE in the early 2010s and his work in AEW at the tail end of the decade, it's apparent that no other wrestler had quite as accomplished a decade as Dean Ambrose/Jon Moxley.
In WWE, he became an unexpected breakout sensation as the Lunatic Fringe — an unpredictable, unlikely world champion in the same mold as Mick Foley. However, when his penchant for Vince McMahon's program began to sour, he flawlessly reverted to his old, uber-violent character, Jon Moxley, in AEW.
Regardless of whether you prefer Mox or WWE's family-friendly version of the character Ambrose, it's easy to see no other wrestler's career was as exciting as Moxley's in the 2010s. A world champion in AEW and WWE, his career was marked by rapturous highs and crippling lows (his 2019 feud with Rollins being one of them) — but no matter what, Moxley himself was rarely, if ever, boring to watch on-screen.
It speaks volumes about AJ Styles' absurd levels of talent as a wrestler that he was able to break away from TNA (a company he practically made with his own two hands) and successfully venture into the indie promotions he initially debuted in.
Sporting longer hair, a scruffy beard, and a fiery personality that had yet to cool since his X-Division days in TNA, Styles parlayed his respected reputation in America into becoming an international sensation overnight.
Returning to ROH and NJPW, Styles' status as a talented wrestler only grew in his matches against Minoru Suzuki, Hiroshi Tanahashi, and Kazuchika Okada. By the time he left NJPW for WWE, he had secured a world-renowned reputation not seen since the likes of Ric Flair. And, of course, effortless professional that he is, Styles only continued to strive for success in WWE, leading to memorable feuds with John Cena, Randy Orton, and Dean Ambrose.
When AJ Styles left NJPW for WWE in 2016, a leadership position opened in the influential Bullet Club stable. Promptly filling that position was Kenny Omega, a young, plucky cruiserweight wrestler who became one of the top stars of NJPW.
Dividing his time between NJPW and ROH in the mid-2010s, Omega had numerous superb singles and tag team matches with his longtime partner, Kota Ibushi, along with his lauded bouts with Kazuchika Okada, Tetsuya Naito, and Hiroshi Tanahashi.
His initial time in AEW (a company he helped co-find) was a bit underwhelming, although punctuated by standout matches against Chris Jericho and the Young Bucks. However, few wrestlers had as incredible a decade in their career as Kenny Omega.
Building off the success of the stunning 2000s portion of his career, Daniel Bryan started the 2010s as a well-established midcard wrestler in WWE. However, as the years went by and the mid-2010s approached, Bryan's immense skill and massive popularity helped him climb to new heights in WWE, winning him the most coveted of wrestling prizes: the WWE Championship.
Throughout his career, Bryan had consistently demonstrated a smashing work ethic and wrestling style reminiscent of William Regal, Bret Hart, Chris Benoit, and Dean Malenko. Never the strongest or most charismatic man, he relied more on his physical prowess, stamina, and flexibility in the ring to deliver the goods, helping him become an indie star in the previous decade.
However, his early tenure in WWE helped Bryan shape his character more and improve his promo skills, leading him to cultivate a loyal contingent of fans with his signature “Yes” chants. From headlining WrestleMania to winning several major titles in WWE, Bryan proved that — as long as you had the fans on your side — you could accomplish anything in WWE, even if your employers didn't always see your true potential.
Before Cody Rhodes, before Drew McIntyre, there was Kazuchika Okada, the most accoladed wrestler in wrestling history. Currently considered one of the finest wrestlers in the world, Okada has been the main star of NJPW since arriving at the company in the early 2010s.
After an eventful period working for TNA in the 2000s, Okada completely reinvented himself when he stepped foot in NJPW. Taking up the mantle of the Rainmaker, the young star had incredible success in his feuds against established talents like Hiroshi Tanahashi.
Okada's status as a world-renowned competitor grew from there, giving way to a 720-day stint as IWGP Heavyweight Champion and several critically acclaimed matches against Will Ospreay, Kota Ibushi, and Kenny Omega. And shockingly, at only 35 years old, Okada is still in his prime.
Richard Chachowski is an entertainment and travel writer who has written for such publications as Wealth of Geeks, Looper, Screen Rant, Fangoria, and Sportskeeda, among many others. He received his BA from The College of New Jersey and has been a professional writer since 2020. His geeky areas of interest include Star Wars, travel writing, horror, video games, comic books, literature, and animation.
Richard has been an avid consumer of movies, television, books, and pop culture since he was four-years-old. Raised on a diverse mix of Clint Eastwood Westerns, Star Wars, sci-fi and horror films, Alan Moore comics, and Stephen King novels, he eventually turned his various passions into a creative outlet, writing about film, television, literature, comics, and gaming for his high school and college newspapers. A traveling enthusiast, Richard has also managed to create a career out of journeying abroad, venturing to such awe-inspiring places as the Sonoran Desert of Mexico, the rainforests of Costa Rica, and the scenic coastline of Haiti. Upon graduating from TCNJ, Richard set his sights on a career in journalism, writing extensively about the art of traveling and the entertainment medium for various online publications. When he’s not busy making his way through The Criterion Collection, he can be found either reading or planning a trip somewhere (preferably someplace with a scenic hiking trail).