The drama shows that are professional wrestling continue to intrigue with new characters rising to put their names next to top stars in the world.
The runs of Bianca Belair and Roman Reigns have been historic, as both are on some of the longest reigns in the history of WWE. AEW’s tag team champions FTR are currently in their record-tying second reign in the promotion. They are the best in the business.
And yet, the list of wrestlers who would be considered must-see is gradually increasing, as a former champion (Mercedes Mone), a loudmouth (MJF) and best friends turned tag champs (Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn) are jamming their way onto the marquee.
With Night of Champions (WWE), Double or Nothing (AEW) and other marquee shows coming up over the next few months, the time was right to bring back ESPN’s pro wrestling rankings, as voted on by an internal panel.
Our top male stars, female stars and tag teams in the world are ranked below with analysis from ESPN’s wrestling correspondents Brandon Caldwell, Mike Coppinger and Marc Raimondi. This time, our writers will highlight stars who went from unranked in our September rankings to making our top five in May.
Charisma, style and a scowl: Ripley is more than her powerhouse strength
Coppinger: Rhea Ripley has quickly established herself as one of the most physically imposing forces in pro wrestling, not just among the women.
Like Chyna before her, Ripley has more than held her own with whomever she shares the ring with, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if she went on to win a men’s title. Since she debuted with NXT UK in 2018, the Aussie has jumped off the screen with her superhuman strength, trademark scowl and powerhouse in-ring style.
It didn’t take long for Ripley to take over the women’s division once she was called up to the main roster, winning the Raw women’s championship at WrestleMania 37 with a victory over Asuka.
One year ago, Ripley jumped to a new level when she joined The Judgment Day as its enforcer. With the brooding stable, she has been a part of some major storylines that extend far beyond the women’s division. And her on-screen chemistry with Dominik Mysterio as “Mami” is always entertaining TV.
Ripley turned heads when she body slammed Luke Gallows — billed at 6-foot-8, 291 pounds — in October, and Triple H has done an excellent job building The Eradicator as a top heel. It’s a matter of time until Ripley enters a singles program with one of the men; TV has consistently teased programs between Ripley, Solo Sikoa and Kevin Owens.
She has been red hot since she linked up with Damian Priest, Finn Balor and Dominik, and Ripley rode that wave of momentum to a WrestleMania 39 victory over Charlotte Flair in a classic to capture the SmackDown women’s championship.
The win made Ripley just the fifth Women’s Grand Slam Champion and youngest grand slam champion in WWE history (men’s or women’s). Ripley defended the title with a victory over Zelina Vega earlier this month at Backlash, and at 26, continues to be one of WWE’s fastest-rising stars.
There’s no limit to what Ripley can achieve. Between her excellent promos, cutting figure and innovative moveset, Ripley is one of WWE’s top talents. Now, it’s a matter of time before WWE delivers a storyline between Ripley and Sikoa that can push her to a different stratosphere.
But before that, Ripley still has plenty of top stars to contend with on the women’s side, from Becky Lynch to Bayley. The biggest of them all: a showdown with Bianca Belair for the undisputed women’s championship.
Others receiving votes: Giulia, Jamie Hayter, Deonna Purrazzo, Charlotte Flair, Tam Nakano, Trinity Fatu, Jordynne Grace, Iyo Sky, Kamille, Britt Baker
The American Nightmare is the franchise player he always knew he could be
Caldwell: Cody Rhodes has fans eating out of his hand in every arena. From his promos, a potent mix of Baptist preacher and Hollywood movie star, to his entrance theme, Rhodes has emerged as a bona fide superstar. When juxtaposed with Sami Zayn, a beloved crowd favorite who helped carry WWE’s best storyline, and fans calling for Zayn to main event WrestleMania and not him, Rhodes’ star power never wavered.
The journey for Rhodes was always meant to return to WWE on his terms. By now, many know of him leaving the company in 2016 and famously returning at WrestleMania 38 in Dallas. It was a matter of reinvention for the second-generation star, who adopted elements of his father’s bravado and showmanship and molded them in his image. Rhodes gravitated toward giving fans a story, whether as a thorn to the proverbial “wrestling machine” with AEW or holding the one prize his father never officially held: WWE champion. Fans bemoaned when Rhodes didn’t defeat Roman Reigns to “finish the story” of becoming champion, but Rhodes’ path has always been about the long way around, not the short one.
In AEW, Rhodes limited himself by ensuring he’d never challenge for the company’s top prize after he feuded with Chris Jericho. Instead, he’d help build stars like Darby Allin and MJF. He made the late Brodie Lee’s debut in the company memorable and elevated him to feel like a main event threat. Within the company he helped create, Rhodes established mainstays opposite him. Internally, the ultimate goal was returning to WWE as a fully realized version of himself, far different from the man who left six years prior.
Rhodes’ return lasted all of three months. By April, he lived up to his billing as a man capable of a WrestleMania main event one day with Seth Freakin’ Rollins. By June, he was in the middle of a gruesome Hell In A Cell match with Rollins elevated by mind games from “The Visionary” and Rhodes’ purplish chest, the result of a torn pectoral muscle suffered in a workout leading up to the match. Rhodes won the match, but he’d sit on the shelf for six months, rehabbing and promising the world he’d win the Royal Rumble and dethrone Reigns.
Since his triumph at WrestleMania 38, Rhodes has only suffered one defeat — the main event loss to Reigns at WrestleMania 39. He has reached an echelon of a beloved babyface, capable of being the ace of a company while simultaneously letting fans hang on to his every word and move within the ring. What Rhodes has cultivated by sheer force of imagination and belief is allowing a company, for the first time in ages, to have more than one suitable babyface to feel like a credible threat.
In his eyes, once the lights go up — Rhodes is home, and even when going through his version of the Odyssey to claim the top prize, he’ll find comfort in being a franchise player, something he endured hard times to achieve.
Others receiving votes: Jon Moxley, Sami Zayn, Will Ospreay, Kazuchika Okada, Hijo Del Vikingo, Bryan Danielson, Bobby Lashley, Gunther, Sanada, Trey Miguel
Aussie Open: From underground kings to mainstream heroes
Raimondi: Aussie Open isn’t a new tag team. Mark Davis and Kyle Fletcher have been teaming up for around six years. They’ve been outstanding — among the best in the world — for a decent duration of that time. But now, what has been known among hardcore fans in the United Kingdom and Australia has been mainstreamed.
Davis and Fletcher have been on a roll this year, especially in the last two months. Aussie Open won New Japan’s IWGP Heavyweight Tag Team titles on Apr. 8 and then took the NJPW Strong Tag Team titles a week later.
The former match, in Tokyo at NJPW Sakura Genesis against Bishamon (Hirooki Goto and YOSHI-HASHI), was one of this year’s best tag team matches. Fletcher landed a moonsault from the top rope early on and cracked the back of his head on the guardrail, splitting it open. The visual itself was pretty absurd, since Fletcher is 6-foot-3. But even more absurd was he started bleeding from a gnarly cut in that area and had to be taped up during the match. He continued, and along with the hard-hitting Davis, showed out against New Japan’s best tag team.
The latter match, a title-winning three-way contest against two Japanese icons Kazuchika Okada and Hiroshi Tanahashi and the Motor City Machine Guns, is one of the top modern teams never to have performed in WWE. Aussie Open defended the IWGP titles for the first time against TMDK (Shane Haste and Mikey Nicholls) on April 29.
Aussie Open, unfortunately, had to forfeit both of those titles Sunday night because of an injury to Davis. Fletcher made the announcement at NJPW Resurgence in Long Beach, California.
This year, Davis and Fletcher also returned to AEW, having a terrific match against the Young Bucks on Feb. 22. They have also wrestled in Ring of Honor (ROH) several times over the past few months, certainly putting in those miles from Japan to the U.K. to the United States. Aussie Open participated in the multiteam ladder match during WrestleMania weekend for the Ring of Honor tag team titles at ROH Supercard of Honor, which also received critical acclaim.
The best might be yet to come for the tandem. Fletcher will challenge Orange Cassidy for the AEW International title Wednesday on AEW Dynamite, the most high-profile singles match of his career. Fletcher is just 24 years old and is one of the best under-25 talents in professional wrestling. He and Davis also had strong singles showings in March during the New Japan Cup. Davis, nicknamed “Dunkzilla,” had excellent showings against Will Ospreay and SANADA during that tournament.
Expect to see quite a bit more from Aussie Open in the U.S., once Davis returns from injury. It’s a real bummer that they were likely to be on the AEW/NJPW Forbidden Door card on June 25 in Toronto against FTR in a rematch of an incredible match in the U.K. last October. If that happened, it would have stolen the show.
Back in New Japan, Aussie Open was scheduled to defend their IWGP belts in a three-team match against Bishamon and House of Torture (EVIL & Yujiro Takahashi) at NJPW Dominion, the promotion’s second biggest show of the year, on June 4 in Osaka. But now, with Aussie Open out, it’ll just be a straight tag match for the vacant IWGP and NJPW Strong championships.
Others receiving votes: Street Profits, Young Bucks, Motor City Machine, Lucha Bros, Damage CTRL, Ace Austin and Chris Bey, House of Black, The New Day, Raquel Rodriguez and Liv Morgan