Flying high from the top of the ropes and crushing their opponents on the mat, the best wrestlers every year make sure to leave a lasting impression. From John Cena to Hulk Hogan, these fan favorites were more than just charismatic characters. They were named the most popular wrestler of the year by Pro Wrestling Illustrated at least once in their careers.
Here are the best of the best that entered the ring to join these legends!
CM Punk – 2021, 2011
CM Punk is a seven-time wrestling world champion. He’s been the WWE World Heavyweight Champion three times and is the fifth longest-reigning WWE champion in the promotion’s history.
After taking a brief detour from wresting to start an MMA career, he came back to the world he was familiar with and was named the most popular wrestler in 2021, taking the honor for the second time.
Orange Cassidy – 2020
Orange Cassidy made his All Elite Wrestling (AEW) debut in 2019 and has soared in popularity ever since. Starting out in the independent circuit, the move to the big time has been a welcome change for the athlete.
Just one year after his debut, Orange Cassidy was named the most popular professional wrestler.
Becky Lynch – 2019
In July 2016, Becky Lynch was drafted to WWE Smackdown. Three years later, she was featured on both Smackdown and Raw and held both women’s championship belts. She was also named the most popular wrestler of 2019.
Following her success, Lynch took a 15-month hiatus, relinquishing her title. When she made her triumphant return in 2021, she won her title back in under 30 seconds.
A.J. Styles – 2018, 2017
A performer under the Raw brand for WWE and a two-time most popular wrestler winner, A.J. Styles has been wrestling professionally since 1999. He first worked with WWE from 2001-to 2002 before moving on to other promotions until 2016.
Styles’ return to WWE was a massive boost to the promotion, leading to him being named the most popular wrestler in back-to-back years.
Shinsuke Nakamura – 2016
Shinsuke Nakamura wrestled in Japan for nearly 15 years before joining WWE in 2016. In his first year he was named the most popular wrestler thanks to his explosive debut with NXT.
In 2017, Nakamura left NXT and joined WWE’s main roster, where he has become a staple for Vince McMahon and fan favorite.
Dean Ambrose – 2015, 2014
Despite working with WWE starting in 2006, Dean Ambrose didn’t really break out until 2012, making his main roster debut at the Survivor Series. He teamed up with Roman Reigns and Seth Rollins as a trio known as The Shield.
In 2014, Rollins left The Shield, leaving Ambrose and Reigns hungry for revenge. It was during this dramatic storyline that Ambrose was named the most popular wrestler in back-to-back years.
Daniel Bryan – 2013
Daniel Bryan was at the top of his game in 2013. Following a devastating defeat, he became extremely aggressive. Critics and fans praised his character turn, especially after he ended The Shield’s unsubmitted streak.
The storyline peaked with Bryan winning his first WWE Championship, defeating John Cena on August 18th at SummerSlam.
John Cena – 2012, 2007, 2005, 2004
Even if you don’t follow WWE, you know who John Cena is. One of the most popular WWE superstars of all time, Cena has been named the most popular wrestler four times, most recently in 2012 when his storyline saw him embroiled in several feuds within the promotion.
Outside of WWE, Cena has become a prolific actor, starring in the comedy Blockers and the HBO Max original series Peacemaker.
Randy Orton – 2010
In 2010, Randy Orton tried and failed multiple times to become a WWE Champion. And even though his year was full of losses, fans loved him. His popularity eventually helped will him to win a title during a Six-Pack Elimination match at Night Of Champions.
After winning the title, Orton began feuding with several other superstars including The Miz and Wade Barrett.
Jeff Hardy – 2009, 2008
Jeff Hardy took time off from WWE in the middle of 2007, telling fans he needed rest to heal from injuries. Coming back in later in the year fully healthy, he was a hurricane, although he was later suspended for violating the promotion’s substance abuse policy.
Full of problems, Hardy was still one of the most popular wrestlers for WWE and was named the most popular performer in 2008 and again in 2009.
Samoa Joe – 2006
Samoa Joe may have made his WWE debut in 2015 at Unstoppable, but it was nine years earlier he was named the most popular wrestler. At that time, in 2006, he was contracted with Total Nonstop Action Wrestling (TNA).
Joe signed on with TNA in 2005 and launched the legend that would become known as “The Samoan Submission Machine.”
Kurt Angle – 2003
Color us surprised that WWE Hall of Famer Kurt Angle was only named the most popular wrestler of the year once. That was in 2003, 10 years before he was enshrined in glory forever.
2003 started ominously for Angle. Brock Lesnar took the WWE Championship from him at Wrestlemania. Then, in April he underwent neck surgery. Fans couldn’t get enough of his triumphant return as he beat Lesnar to win back his championship.
Rob Van Dam – 2002, 2001
Rob Van Damn transitioned from Extreme Wrestling Championship to WWE in 2001. During this time his popularity skyrocketed and he was named the #1 contender at WrestleMania X8.
In 2002, he joined the Raw roster, being taken fourth in WWE Draft when the promotion split into two “brands” (Raw and SmackDown!).
The Rock – 2000, 1999
Dwayne Johnson attempted a career as a professional football player before injuries made him reconsider and follow the path of his father. The choice ended up being fate for the man known worldwide as The Rock.
The Rock’s popularity was at its highest in 1999 and 2000 when he began feuding with Mankind and Steve Austin. At the Royal Rumble, he won the WWF Title (now WWE Title), and let his stardom lead him to the next level of his career in Hollywood.
Steve Austin – 1998
There’s nothing like feuding with the boss to turn you into one of the most popular wrestlers of all time. That’s exactly what happened with Stone Cold Steve Austin beginning in 1997.
Over a three-year span, the superstar feuded with Vince McMahon, even attacking him in the ring, leading to his “arrest” in front of a national television audience.
Sting – 1997, 1994, 1992, 1991
With an over 30 year career as a professional wrestler, it’s not surprising to see Sting is a four-time honoree as the most popular wrestler of the year. He first found glory in 1991 with the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA), then three more times as a member of WCW.
It was in 1997 Sting made his greatest impact. During Uncensored, he repelled down the roof of the arena to defeat the entire nWo roster in an epic match.
Shawn Michaels – 1996, 1995
It was during Shawn Michaels’ second stint with WWE that he found his star soaring. Originally signed as a member of The Rockers in 1988, he eventually helped form The Clique in 1995 and became a fan favorite.
Leading up to 1996, Michaels teased retirement, then returned at Royal Rumble, winning the event for the second straight year. Michaels still wrestles with WWE today.
Lex Luger – 1993
Lex Luger spent one year working with Vince McMahon as a member of the World Bodybuilding Federation (WBF) in 1992 before joining WWE as The Narcissist. It was with this character he was named the most popular wrestler of 1993.
During his run as The Narcissist, Luger would make a habit of posing in a mirror before every match. He also claimed to have a metal pole in his arm that allowed him to cause more damage to his opponents.
Hulk Hogan – 1990, 1989
Hulk Hogan’s second reign as WWF Champion was his most popular. The run lasted one year – the same year he starred in the movie No Holds Barred. Interestingly enough, that movie would serve as inspiration for his famous feud with Tom Lister Jr., who showed up to wrestling events in character.
In 1990, Hogan won the Royal Rumble, cementing his place in WWE history as one of the all-time greats.
Randy Savage – 1988
One of WWE’s biggest ever stars, Randy “Macho Man” Savage was truly larger than life. He started with the promotion when it was still WWF in 1985 and won multiple championships on his way to being named the most popular wrestler of 1988.
Sadly, Savage passed away in 2011, six years after retiring.