Good: Dean Malenko
Dean Malenko’s matches were some of the highlights of golden era Nitro and his “Man of 1000 Holds” character was the sturdy pillar around which the ostentatious Cruiserweight Division was constructed. With that said, however, Dean was almost “too real” for wrestling in the late 90s. His work in the ring was so smooth, strong, and tough-looking that it threatened the legitimacy of those much further up the card than he.
Ultimately, Malenko was two poles with no equator. His ability to execute moves and apply holds was second to none in the business, but his inability to cut anything beyond a rudimentary promo prevented him from breaking through into even the upper-midcard. While a spectacular talent to watch, Malenko never had the potential for upward mobility ability that fans can see and get behind.
Better: Chris Benoit
HE WHO SHALL NOT BE NAMED (but will be named in this piece for the sake of saving characters) was trained by Stu Hart, which after the last three Wrestlers of the Week, you should know to be a big deal. Benoit passed through the Hart dungeon around the same time as Brian Pillman and became an international star, wrestling around the world in Europe, Japan, and North America. Benoit’s legacy as a grappler is like that of Malenko, except with top-tier restraint and character development.
Benoit could take men in and out of holds as smoothly as Malenko, but he also injected some of that rock hard Stampede-style legitimacy that those like his idol The Dynamite Kid had possessed in the ‘80s. Benoit was the perfect wrestler for his time: simultaneously a skilled technician who could wrestle anybody and a physical brawler who could make it appear that he was mercilessly beating the tar out of someone.
Best: Bret Hart
When it came to jumping off of things impressively and twisting arms viciously, Chris Benoit may have been a cut above, but when you factor in the ability to carry a company through a long, cold winter, Bret Hart stands head and shoulders above all other “pure” tacticians in wrestling. In an era immediately proceeding Hulk Hogan’s reign of highly-formulaic (and typically short) matches, Bret Hart used his technical abilities to keep WWF fans interested in a wrestling business that seemed in danger of drying up.
Bret wasn’t nearly WWF’s biggest money-maker on top, nor was he their biggest, most bombastic personality, but he was an earnest guy and a great wrestler, both of which appealed to a wrestling audience who’d been jerked around by Hulk Hogan and The Ultimate Warrior one too many times. Bret was a skilled enough wrestler to look like the best, and a skilled enough talker to tell the story of his journey through wrestling — all that adds up to him being the ultimate technician.