21 Best Old-School WWE Wrestlers of All Time, Ranked

Who are the best old-school WWE wrestlers ever to step into the ring? From iconic pioneers to timeless heroes and unexpected inclusions, too, delve into our definitive list of the greatest wrestlers of all time from the pre-1990 Capitol Sports, WWWF, and WWF eras!

21. Nikolai Volkoff

Nikolai_Volkoff
Nikolai Volkoff. Photo Credit: WWE.

One of Bruno Sammartino’s favorite and greatest rivals, Nikolai Volkoff, was a powerhouse of a man.

On command from manager Freddie Blassie, Volkoff would shatter fruit with his bare hands. Add tag team immortality as half of The Mongols and his infamous partnering with The Iron Sheik, and you have a wrestling resume for the ages. Nikolai and the Sheik evoked so much heat they’d need to be hidden in ambulances to escape Madison Square Garden mid-card.

One of the greatest foreign heels of all time, along with Waldo Von Erich, Spiros Arion, and Pampero Firpo, any of these headliners could just as easily have filled this slot on our talent-laden list.

20. Tito Santana

Tito Santana
Tito Santana. Photo Credit: WWE.

Vastly underrated, the Tito Santana- Greg Valentine feud for the Intercontinental belt was wrestling elevated to art. It headlined arenas, including Madison Square Garden, back when WWE ran multiple shows a night.

Tito could wrestle, brawl, and fly. He was always in tip-top shape and so beloved as a face he never turned heel.

A multiple Inter-Continental and WWF Tag Team Champion, he always gave 110% and more than deserves to be mentioned among the all-time greats. "Arriba" for the great and even unsung Tito Santana.

19. Don Leo Jonathan

Don Leo Jonathan
Don Leo Jonathan. Photo Credit: WWE.

"The Morman Giant" Do Leo Jonathan was a massive man, but unlike many giants in The Great Khali and El Gigante mode, he was a wrestling machine.

He took on champions like Bruno Sammartino and Pedro Morales, and when the 6’6″ three-hundred-pounder stepped into the ring, the fans often wondered if the champion would walk out with the belt still around their waists.

Jonathan also passed it on; he put over Andre the Giant and helped give the young Jean Ferrer (as Andre was then called) credibility early in his career.

Holding mountains of gold throughout the great territories, he was a perennial main eventer held in great esteem by both fans and his peers. Jonathan even made big-screen appearances in Sylvester Stallone’s Paradise Alley and 350 Days.

18. Paul Orndorff

"Mr. Wonderful" Paul Orndorff.
Paul Orndorff. Photo Credit: WWE.

Talent and charisma-wise, “Mr. Wonderful” Paul Orndorff was as great as virtually anyone.

In just a few years in the then WWF, he headlined the first WrestleMania with Roddy Piper versus Hulk Hogan and Mr. T and had a top-drawing feud with Hogan, arguably the champ’s very best.

With a tremendous narcissistic gimmick in "Mr. Wonderful" and the looks, talent, power, and physique to back it all up, the ex-footballer was a fantastic athlete and as well-conditioned as anyone who ever stepped foot in the ring.

Chronic injuries limited him later in his career, but his 1980s WWF run helped ring in the sports entertainment era.

17. Greg Valentine

Greg Valentine
Greg Valentine. Photo Credit: WWE.

A genuinely great technician, Greg “The Hammer” Valentine was double tough.

In the 1970s and 1980s, he not only battled Bob Backlund to a memorable one-hour draw at Madison Square Garden, but they also held the title up in New York after another particularly grueling and controversial affair.

The son of the great Johnny Valentine, who is more than worthy of this list as well, Greg prides himself on working stiff like his legendary father.

"The Hammer" exudes toughness, was not shy about mixing it up or bleeding buckets if needed, but could go hold for hold with virtually anyone. Paying his dues in the territories, he learned from such greats as his inimitable father, tag team partner Don Fargo, and John Tolos in Los Angeles.

He also found tag team glory as one half of the Dream Team with Brutus Beefcake, managed by the outrageous Lucious Johnny Valiant.

16. Pat Patterson

Pat Patterson.
Pat Patterson. Photo Credit: WWE.

Equally great face or heel, whenever Pat Patterson appeared, you’d more than get your money’s worth.

He went a record four MSG main events with then champion Bob Backlund and his Street Fights with Sgt. Slaughter is still spoken of with awe and wonder.

An early Intercontinental champ, he helped give the belt the credibility it needed, and his series with Ken Patera were also classics.

He also feuded with Ivan Koloff and King Kong Mosca in the WWWF and, of course, was a visionary behind the scenes for Vince McMahon Jr.

Heavily influenced by former partner Ray Stevens, ring immortal Stevens is also spoken of with reverence.

RIP to Pat Patterson; what a boatload of memories he left behind.

15. Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka

Jimmy Snuka. Photo Credit: WWE.

With charisma off the charts, Jimmy Snuka, too, was an equally great face or heel.

His innumerable battles with arch-rival Roddy Piper blew the roof off of many a building.

And his leap off the cage onto a prone Don Muraco at MSG may very well have been the greatest single moment in the history of the business. A sea of flash cubes went off as he soared like a giant bird, and there was a roar from the mesmerized crowd that still rang in our ears four decades later.

He could wrestle and brawl, and the man most certainly could fly. Yes, there will never be another one quite like Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka.

14. Sgt. Slaughter

Sgt Slaughter
Sgt. Slaughter. Photo Credit: WWE.

In the 1980s, few stars were as on fire or great in-ring as Sgt. Slaughter.

A huge man who moved like a Junior Heavyweight, he was a brawling, bleeding, bumping machine.

Whether on top vs. Backlund, Hogan, or arch enemy The Iron Sheik, you sure would be entertained when Slaughter hit that ring.

Slaughter’s Boot Camp matches with The Iron Sheik were memorably brutal affairs, and his foreign sympathizer heel turn versus Hogan got heat off the charts.

In an interesting historical side note, Slaughter wrestled Bruno Sammartino on top on a rare evening when Backlund did not appear at MSG on December 8th, 1980; walking out of the arena, we discovered, to our horror, that John Lennon had just been shot.

13. Ken Patera

Strongman Ken Patera over the years.
Strongman Ken Patera over the years. Photo Composite: Pro Wrestling Stories.

A ring technician who could brawl when called for "The Olympic Strongman," Ken Petera was a top challenger to Bruno Sammartino, Bob Backlund, and Hulk Hogan.

Another early Inter-Continental champion, he was in consideration for the WWWF Heavyweight championship, and a 1980 MSG bout with Backlund was recognized as The Wrestling Observer’s match of the year.

Patera had great Intercontinental Championship battles with Pat Patterson and Pedro Morales, to boot.

With charisma and credibility off the charts, he was always regarded as a threat to any champion’s belt, and the fact that he isn’t in the WWE Hall of Fame remains one of their greatest injustices.

12. Ivan Koloff

Ivan Koloff in the WWF.
Ivan Koloff. Photo Credit: WWE.

"The Russian Bear" Ivan Koloff defeated Bruno Sammartino when the belt meant everything. On the night he won the title at The Garden, a hush fell over the "Mecca of Wrestling," and fans wept for their hero.

An MSG headliner thirteen times, he challenged Bob Backlund and formed a formidable tag team with Superstar Billy Graham.

He could wrestle and brawl, bled buckets, and wasn’t shy about letting himself be tossed through the air like a projectile. When he and Bruno walked down the aisle, the building would shake in anticipation, as he had credibility to spare.

On a list of all-time great foreign heels, he’d easily be in the top 10.

11. Antonino Rocca

Antonino Rocca rides on the shoulders of fans after police break up the riot around the ring at Madison Square Garden on November 19, 1957.
Antonino Rocca in the ring at Madison Square Garden on November 19, 1957. Photo Credit: Walter Kelleher, NY Daily News.

Before Bruno Sammartino, the East Coast’s number-one hero was the remarkable Antonino Rocca.

The innovative high flyer was revolutionary for the 1950s, and the fans marveled at his amazing move set.

Whether solo or with tag partner Miguel Perez, the fans repeatedly flocked to see him headline.

Rocca broke box office records at that time and was involved in the infamous 1957 Madison Square Garden riot that almost led to professional wrestling being banned in the building. He later became an announcer on WWWF TV.

Like Gorgeous George, he was also an early crossover star, appearing on the cover of a Superman comic and as a guest on many late-night and other talk shows of the era. Such was his fame and popularity that his funeral in 1977 was attended by thousands and made the front cover of newspapers of that era.

10. Hulk Hogan

Hulk Hogan
Hulk Hogan. Photo Credit: WWE.

To his credit, Hulk Hogan had tremendous feuds and matches with arch-rivals Roddy Piper, Paul Orndorff, and Randy Savage.

The other side of the coin was the utter predictability of so many of his encounters. A behemoth would pound on him for a bit, and after his patented Superman comeback, there’d be the inevitable leg-drop finish. The Hulkster would be back in the locker room eight minutes later. But it was a formula that worked.

The then-WWF was printing money in that era with their burgeoning merchandise sales, and for better or for worse, he brought in the Sports Entertainment era and became a massive crossover star.

It should be pointed out that Pedro Morales, Bruno Sammartino, Superstar Billy Graham, and Bob Backlund appeared monthly in the very same venues that the "Hulkster" only hit three to five times a year, so Hogan as box office dynamo is not quite as clear cut as one may think. However, the general public knows not a lot of wrestlers at a glance, and he is the rarest of the rare legit crossover stars.

Love him or loathe him, Hulk Hogan was a superhero come to life, and he changed the business forever.

9. Macho Man Randy Savage

Macho Man Randy Savage
Macho Man Randy Savage. Photo Credit: WWE.

Randy Savage had it all. Coming from the great Poffo wrestling family, with father Angelo and brother Lanny, wrestling was in his blood, and he had mat skills off the charts. Add unbelievable charisma, an "Oh yeah" catchphrase lifted from Pampero Firpo, gorgeous ring robes, and an equally gorgeous "Lovely Miss Elizabeth" by his side.

With his ahead-of-his-time dramatic elbow drop finisher, you had a true total package. While Vince Jr. loved the massive monsters like Hulk Hogan and Brock Lesnar, such was the talent of Savage that he couldn’t be denied.

Many rank his battle with Ricky Steamboat as the greatest WrestleMania bout of all time, and his feud with Hulk Hogan was huge box office. A crossover star with film roles, memorable Slim Jim commercials, and even a rap album, nobody will ever forget the amazing Macho Man Randy Savage.

8. Killer Kowalski

Killer Kowalski. Photo Credit: Pro Wrestling Illustrated, WWE.

On top from the 1950s to the 1970s Walter "Killer" Kowalski is one of history’s most incredible big men and heels.

For a 6’7,” 280-pound giant, he had unbelievable stamina and was a relentless force in the ring, relentlessly working on various body parts. Like Johnny Valentine, he made it all look convincing and devastating.

The Killer wrestled Bruno Sammartino hundreds of times around the circuit, and it was always a draw. Even at the very end of his career, he was on top as one of the masked Executioners along with protégé Chuck (John Studd) O’Connor.

Kowalski also helped put over a young Andre the Giant and was a master trainer who gave a start to so many, including Chyna.

Kowalski, Andre, Don Leo Jonathan, and Ernie Ladd would top a list of great big men. He is unquestionably one of the greatest villains in the history of the business.

7. Pedro Morales

Pedro Morales. Photo Credit: Pro Wrestling Illustrated, WWE.

When you hold the WWWF title for three years and face the greatest of the greats, it is almost odd that history hasn’t been kinder to the iconic Pedro Morales. WWE barely mentions him except when their current champions bypass his records, and he was too early for many of today’s fans to have experienced his unbelievable charisma live.

A brawler who also had mat skills, his title defenses against such greats as King Curtis, Larry "The Axe" Hennig, Blackjack Mulligan, Don Leo Jonathan, Pampero Firpo, George "The Animal" Steele, Ivan Koloff, and so many others riveted crowds up and down the East Coast.

His later runs as Inter-Continental Champion also helped legitimize that belt, and his feuds with Don Muraco and Ken Patera were barnburners. He even won the tag team title with Bob Backlund from the fierce Samoans at Shea Stadium, only to immediately give them back up in an odd move by the WWWF.

A hero to many, let’s never forget the fantastic career of the Puerto Rican hero, Pedro Morales.

6. Don Muraco

Don-Muraco
Don Muraco. Photo Credit: WWE.

Prime heel 1980s WWF Don Muraco was as great as virtually anyone who ever stepped foot in the ring. He could wrestle, brawl, move like someone half his size, cut all-time great promos, and possessed other worldy charisma.

There were many nights when fans were there to see him defend or challenge for the Intercontinental Championship more so than Bob Backlund’s main-event bouts. Muraco was so over that he, too, got shots at Bob in thrilling champion verus champion classic battles.

Anybody who saw Muraco live knew they were sitting at the foot of greatness. The Magnificent Muraco was just that- utterly magnificent.

5. “Rowdy” Roddy Piper

Roddy Piper
Roddy Piper. Photo Credit: WWE.

When prime heel Roddy Piper stormed the ring in the 1980s, it was like a tornado had hit. Wild, unpredictable, frenetic, it was mayhem at its wildest, and when his match finally ended, you could breathe again. Add "bodyguard" and tag team partner- the great "Ace" Cowboy Bob Orton- and you have a tag team that blows the roof off the very same buildings.

Without a Roddy Piper, there’s no Hulkamania in WWF, as they were arch-rivals and equal in stature. Who knows if WWE would have expanded as they did without "Hot Rod" leading the charge?

Man, what nights those were seeing Piper on top time and time again.

4. Bob Backlund

WWWF Champion Bob Backlund.
Bob Backlund as WWWF Champion in 1978. Photo Credit: WWE.

Holding the WWWF/WWF World Heavyweight Championship for 2,135 days, nearly six years, Bob Backlund finds firm placement in our Top 5.

While he wasn’t at his best trying to carry aging behemoths, the "All American Boy" put on many a classic with wrestlers with technical prowess like Greg Valentine, Adrian Adonis, Bob Orton, Jr., Masked Superstar, Don Muraco, Ken Patera, Iron Sheik, Pat Patterson, and so many others.

While he was nowhere near as charismatic as his predecessor, Superstar Billy Graham, nobody can deny his excellent wrestling skills, power, unreal cardio, and babyface charm. He even returned as a heel over a decade later to briefly hold the gold.

Bob Backlund’s was a career for the ages and nothing but respect for the great champion.

3. Superstar Billy Graham

WWWF World Champion Superstar Billy Graham attracts looks of awe from envious fans.
Superstar Billy Graham. Photo Credit: Dr. Mike Lano.

Long before everyone on the WWE roster was deemed a superstar, the larger-than-life Billy Graham was just that.

On influence alone, Superstar Billy Graham would be on the top of any "Best Of" list. Without one "Superstar" Billy Graham, there would be no Hulk Hogan, Jessie "The Body" Ventura, Steve Strong, Austin Idol,  or a host of others heavily influenced by him.

Possibly the greatest promo man in history and easily top five, he could talk you into a seat and then rivet you with his incredible charisma.

With no pyro or entrance music, Superstar made buildings shake, and he was the conqueror of Bruno Sammartino.

Selling out Madison Square Garden again and again, there was once a time when giants walked the Earth, and we are forever indebted to "The man of the hour…the man with the power…" the immortal Superstar Billy Graham.

2. Buddy Rogers

Buddy Rogers. Photo Credit: Pro Wrestling Illustrated, WWE.

Interview virtually any older legend, and Buddy Rogers will inevitably be mentioned as one of the greatest of all time.

Without "Nature Boy" Buddy Rogers, there would be no Ric Flair (or Buddy Landell), not to mention the countless wrestlers influenced by Rogers. Even the Figure Four leglock was taken from the legend.

As the first WWWF Champion, he packed arenas with fans anxious to see him defeated.

After a mild heart attack affected him, he was reduced to quickie bouts and tag team affairs; a young, popular Bruno Sammartino was deemed his successor and took the belt from him in 1963.

The great Lou Thesz stated that the Nature Boy was "The prototype of the cocky, strutting, sneering, arrogant peroxide blond villain that is almost a tired wrestling cliché today. Rogers invented the character, and I believe he did it better than anyone."

1. Bruno Sammartino

Bruno Sammartino
Bruno Sammartino. Photo Credit: WWE.

Two reigns and 2,803 days later, old-school fans will tell you that their beloved hero, "The Italian Strongman," Bruno Sammartino, is the best wrestler of all time.

With classic feuds with such immortal legends as Bill Watts, Waldo Von Erich, George "The Animal" Steele, Ken Patera, Larry Zybyszko, Spiros Arion, The Valiant Brothers, Gorilla Monsoon, Toro Tanaka, Stan Hansen, Ken Patera, The Sheik, Nikolai Volkoff, Killer Kowalski, Superstar Billy Graham and Ivan Koloff and so many, many others, Bruno on top for over a decade total filled arenas and even baseball stadium super shows.

When Bruno walked down the aisle in a pair of tights with no pyro or entrance music to be found, such was the charisma of this powerhouse that buildings shook.

And when he lost to Ivan Koloff at MSG, the fans wept and went silent. While there were better technicians out there, few, if any, were as loved as the longtime draw that was the late, great, iconic Bruno Sammartino.

Final Thoughts

The ultimate pre-1990 WWE wrestling legends list! See if your favorite old-school wrestlers from Capitol Sports, WWWF, and WWF made the cut!
Did your favorite old-school wrestlers from Capitol Sports, WWWF, and WWF make our ultimate pre-1990 WWE wrestling legends list?

Many NWA champions also made their way to WWE rings. Talent-wise, Ric Flair, Ricky Steamboat, Gene Kiniski, Dusty Rhodes, Harley Race, and Dory and Terry Funk were equal to or greater than some acknowledged here, but they were often saddled with silly gimmicks or past their prime during their campaigns. Simply put their most memorable runs and bouts were elsewhere.

There are also other names, like Gorilla Monsoon and Andre the Giant, who would easily make our Top 50 WWE Wrestlers of All Time list but weren’t included here only due to trying to limit this article to twenty-one entries (which was a tall order in itself).

While it’s all subjective, you can’t deny one thing: the above-mentioned old-school wrestling legends sacrificed their bodies to entertain us, and we are eternally grateful!

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Evan Ginzburg is the Senior Editor for Pro Wrestling Stories and a contributing writer since 2017. He's a published author and was an Associate Producer on the Oscar-nominated movie "The Wrestler" and acclaimed wrestling documentary "350 Days." He is a 30-plus-year film, radio, and TV veteran and a voice-over actor on the radio drama Kings of the Ring.