As much as the wrestling purists among us may try to claim that capability in the ring trumps the more 'sports entertainment' presentational factors in what makes a 'good wrestler', simply put, if someone can't work the stick, they have a permanent glass ceiling.
Jason Jordan has all the natural talent in the world, but currently, he's dry toast on the mic (“Miz, you really do … suck”) and it's a huge stumbling block to him getting over. In a similar vein, Roman Reigns has in-ring charisma in abundance (shut up, you know he does) but the reason he's always seemed more of a walking corporate strategy than a relatable, supportable human being is that he's only recently begun to develop the nous to spin overwritten promos into words that a person might conceivably say.
Just look at this list's honourable mentions: Hulk Hogan, John Cena, Steve Austin, Mick Foley; none of these guys would pass muster in a top-shelf work rate promotion like Ring of Honor but their iconic delivery, character work and storytelling reliability have kept them on the forefront of wrestling for decades.
Here are the 10 best mic workers in wrestling history - in no particular order for the most part, I should add - along with their defining piece of work...
10. Shawn Michaels
When you think of the things that Shawn Michaels is really good at, you think of:
- Shooting deer
- Training the next crop of WWE Superstars AND definitely not the ability to look in two directions at the same time.
One thing we're all guilty of doing, however, is underestimating The Showstopper as a talker.
In an industry overcrowded with charisma, the character that was the HeartBreak Kid still shone brighter than his peers and his ability with the microphone was a huge part of that, whether it be as obnoxious prankster-cum-stripper, or as gruff, redeemed Texan hardass. His mic skills were more subtle than some of the more grandiose talents on this list.
His best promo: “Who's Your Daddy, Montreal?”
Shawn Michaels' comeback run with the company largely saw him play a veteran babyface for eight straight years. However, tucked into his final stretch as a veteran face is a small aberrant heel turn.
HBK vs. Hulk Hogan was pencilled for SummerSlam 2005 and The Hulkster demanded that Michaels be heel for the encounter. While the turn may have been short-lived (Michaels turned face again almost immediately following SummerSlam), it was one of the most bizarrely entertaining runs of his career including this whopper of a promo in Montreal, the one city that never forgave HBK for his part in the infamous Screwjob.
Michaels had the crowd in the palm of his hand throughout, and the heat he receives for singing the Canadian national anthem and teasing a return of Bret Hart is some of the most intense in the history of wrestling villainy.
“Got your hopes up just a little bit, didn't I?”
9. 'Rowdy' Roddy Piper
At his best, Hot Rod was a yawning chasm of pure hateful charisma. While heels like Kevin Owens accrue more respectful adulation for their mic work than useful heel heat, Roddy Piper managed to juggle hilarious eloquence with inexcusable maliciousness to create an entertaining character that still unified the crowd against him.
Piper may have been a great face later in his WWE career, but nothing topped mid-eighties heel Roddy. From kicking Cyndi Lauper to busting Vince's chops on Tuesday Night Titans, he was one of the best bastards alive.
His best promo: “I Change The Questions!”
When talking about peak Piper, look no further than this promo segment. Piper invites a jobber called Frank Williams onto Piper's Pit for the sole purpose of berating him for being a jobber. Piper is equal parts funny and cruel before, in a prime display of Piper's unstable nature, he unloads upon Williams a vicious beating, kneeing him in the face in the process.
To cap off the tremendous character work, Piper shouts, straight down the lens, one of his most famous lines.
“Just when they think they got the answers, I change the questions!"
8. 'Macho Man' Randy Savage
Trying to decipher what makes a Randy Savage promo so good is like trying to unravel a ball of string. So many of his pre-match ramblings were so loosely connected that only he had the power to make sure they made sense. There's a reason he was the sole purveyor of Macho Madness, you know.
Whether it was the inspiration that was “Cream of the Crop” or the vaguely profound “and the beat goes on, yeah,” or just when Savage would spin on the spot shouting “360 DEGREES," his promos were always difficult to comprehend, but impossible to ignore.
His best promo: “It's My Fault!”
This Tuesday In Texas may have been a one-time-only rarely-remembered B-PPV, but it saw Randy Savage's return from retirement amidst one of his greatest ever feuds, his venom-fuelled programme with Jake 'The Snake' Roberts.
At TTIT, Jake had raised the temperature of their feud by delivering multiple DDTs to the Macho Man and, worst of all, striking his wife/manager Elizabeth. Crazed, Macho Man delivers the backstage promo of his life, on the verge of tears, striking himself repeatedly in the head out of furious guilt, hissing “it's my fault, it's my fault!”
Some of Randy Savage's most fondly remembered promos have been exercises in off-the-wall poetry, but all such cunning vanished here, replaced with a devastating rawness that grabs you. It may not be him at his most iconic but this depiction of Savage, despondent, dropping to the floor before raining again and spitting with rage was The Macho Man at his most effective.
“I'm gonna get you, man. I'm gonna get you.”
7. Chris Jericho
If The Rock is the 'Catchphrase King' of professional wrestling, then Chris Jericho has to at least be considered the Catchphrase... Prince? Basically, he's really good at coming up with stuff. Not only does Y2J have outstanding abilities as both face and heel, but his body of verbal work speaks for itself. The man has over 27-years worth of material in the bank, after all. “Ayatollah of Rock and Rollah”; “Will you please shut THE HELL up?!”; “Never EEEEEVEERRRR be the same again”; “[PLACE]. IS. JERICHOOO”; “The Best In The World At What I Do”; “....IT”; “You just MADE THE LIST!!” and on and on and on …
But it's not just catchphrases. Throughout Y2J's career, he's reinvented himself more than any other Superstar and he's always, without fail, modified his promo style perfectly to fit his character, making him on the most accomplished voices in wrestling history.
His best promo: "A Lying, Cheating, Pathetic Little Worm of a Human Being!"
Sometimes a promo is remembered not because of what a Superstar said but because of their actions and this one, while Jericho's verbiage cannot be overlooked here, certainly falls into that category.
The backstory was there with Shawn Michaels thanks to their 2003 programme and WrestleMania XIX matchup. Jericho idolised HBK. The Showstopper was the reason Lionheart got started in the business in the first place after seeing a 'smaller' guy claw his way to the big time in an era when size was everything.
Chris had Shawn on as a guest on the Highlight Reel and kicked things off by heralding his hero, reeling in everyone watching in the process. He then started to subtly turn the screw by ridiculing HBK and the fans in attendance before "lying, cheating, pathetic little worm of a human being" blurted out from between his lips and a beatdown began. This, of course, would end with Michaels' face going through the Jeritron as this feud was launched into the stratosphere.
How Jericho carried the narrative of being an honest man yet still emerges from this exchange as the bad guy beggars belief and is a testament to his range as a performer.
"Nowadays he's not only something of a mentor to me he's also someone I'm very proud to call a good friend."
6. CM Punk
In the modern era of heavily-scripted WWE promos, CM Punk was a glorious anarchist. He has that rarest of gifts; he sounds like he's making it up as he goes along. The most effective promos sound as if they're beamed from the wrestler's brain to your ears with as little interference as possible, and only the top 0.001% of wrestlers made cutting iconic verbiage look as effortless as Punk.
The man brought a huge amount of fans back into wrestling with this single promo. You all know what's coming. Despite every possible disadvantage (being an indie guy, not being John Cena, just looking a bit doughy compared to the rest of the locker room), the man talked his way into the main event with sniper precision trash-talking and gritty charisma.
Whether he was verbally sparring against John Cena, Vince McMahon, Triple H, or The Rock, Punk dominated the microphone every single time.
His best promo: “I Am The Best … Wrestler In The World”
Obviously. Just watch the promo. I know you've seen it a thousand times, but you're going to watch it again right now, aren't you? We both know it.
“Hey, Colt Cabana, how you doin'?"
5. Paul Heyman
Unquestionably the greatest hype man in the history of wrestling, Paul Heyman is the WWE equivalent of a ringmaster, accomplishing solo what it would otherwise take a fleet of editors to do: create the big fight feel.
Through a masterful combination of high-intensity combat patter and liquid eloquence, Heyman has always been great, but now he's a ticket-shifting genius. However, his talents aren't simply restricted to salesmanship, his weasel persona is one of the most complete characters in wrestling, and his ability to switch from one extreme to the other makes him one of the greatest non-wrestlers in the history of the industry.
His best promo: “This is E. C. F**king W.”
While his numerous scripted screeds for Brock Lesnar have cemented his position as one of WWE's most valuable employees, it's his worked shoots that are the true masterpieces. His reality-dipped tirade against Vince and WWE during the Invasion angle is blistering, but you have to watch his victory lap at ECW One Night Stand 2005 - let's just put the 'two words' line to one side for a moment, shall we? Good.
It may not be as raw as his Invasion shoot, or even when he cut loose on Jerry Lawler in 1997, but it's Heyman at his most entertaining, verbally assassinating Eric Bischoff, JBL, and other worthy targets with sniper accuracy, all while a crowd of ECW loyalists roar in appreciation. It's masterful stuff.
“The only reason you were WWE Champion for a year … is because Triple H didn't wanna work Tuesdays!”
4. Dusty Rhodes
How does a man who looks like Dusty Rhodes make it in the land of the toned Adonis? By being one of the all-time masters of the stick, of course. As the 'Common Man', Rhodes was 50% of one of the most lucrative rivalries in NWA history against Ric Flair.
With his distinctive lisp and southern twang, Rhodes has potentially the most iconic voice in wrestling, with every Superstar having their own rendition of the 'Dusty voice' in their back pocket - Dean Ambrose's is particularly good, apparently. He was a poet that united the people with his intense and profound promos, full of belly fire and working-class soul.
There's a reason why WWE installed Dusty in their Performance Center to guide the stars of tomorrow with their promo skills. He had the innate gift of the gab.
His best promo: “That's Hard Times”
'Hard Times' isn't just Dusty's best promo, but it's one of the greatest wrestling of all time. What is a wrestling babyface if not a champion of the people and, with Dusty's heartfelt paean to working American life, he became a walking, talking, Bionic Elbowing figurehead for millions.
"Hard times are when the auto workers are out of work and they tell them 'Go home!'. And hard times are when a man has worked at a job thirty years — thirty years! — they give him a watch, kick him in the butt and say 'Hey, a computer took your place, daddy!'."
3. Jake 'The Snake' Roberts
They broke the mould with Jake Roberts. From the 1980s to the early 90s, the wrestling promo was a pretty standard thing with big, sweaty, bug-eyed men bellowing themselves into prolapse shouting, “WELL LET ME TELL YA, MEAN GENE” straight down the camera lens.
Jake 'The Snake' Roberts was a completely different beast. While his contemporaries screamed, Jake whispered, his natural articulation more menacing and captivating than blunt force volume. While his peers yelled “EYE FIGHT YUU WEETH MY BEEG HANNDS,” his vocabulary was lightyears more advanced, tipping right over into ornate gothic poetry, telling Ted DiBiase at WrestleMania VI that he would become 'the victim of his own greed, wallowing in the muck of avarice.'
Roberts' promos were tangible proof that less is more, with captivating intensity marking him, and him alone, as the untouchable iceman of promos.
His best promo: “Anything That I Do... It's Your Fault”
The 'muck of avarice' promo is often regarded as Jake's best but when talking about a promo's quality, you have to look at its effect on the feud. 'Does this promo take the feud to another level?' is THE question and, honestly, the 'avarice' promo is fantastic, but it didn't really create more hype, it was just an impressive bit of talking.
Instead, we return to This Tuesday In Texas and Roberts' pre-match heel promo on Macho Man Randy Savage. The hallmarks of a great Jake 'The Snake' promo are all here. Quiet articulation, arresting imagery, but what marks it out as Roberts' best, is how it makes the feud more personal.
Prior to the promo, Roberts had tied Randy Savage to the ring ropes and had one of his army of snakes bite him on the arm to the horror of millions. A brutal act, but Roberts expertly turns the screw in this promo when he focuses, not on Randy, but on Elizabeth, describing the ecstasy he felt while watching her eyes fill with fear. Absolutely beautiful mic work.
“When you look into my eyes, you see two black holes in the sky.”
2. The Rock
Before Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson was the most charismatic movie star of the 2010s, he was the most charismatic wrestler of the 90s. It seems utterly redundant to say “The Rock was good at promos” as his skill was so legendary that a word he created ended up in the dictionary (SmackDown) and one of his catchphrases became so 'household' that it was once parodied by the President of The United States (if you smell what The Rock/Barack is cooking).
His words made millions AND MILLIONS of dollars for Vince McMahon and few could come close to his freeform verbiage on the microphone. Genuinely, The Rock's trash talk was so devastating that some superstars, like Billy Gunn or Booker T, never truly recovered from his ridicule.
His best promo: “Yaaay, He Said Toronto!!”
While The Rock, with his perfect smile and current status as WWE Legend, is most often remembered for his electric (wahey) run as a babyface, arguably his greatest mic work was accomplished as a heel. When The Rock returned to WWE for a brief run in 2003, it was as a 'Hollywood' heel, spurned by the fans for walking out on them after SummerSlam the previous year.
You may not agree but Hollywood Rock was the best incarnation of The Rock that there's ever been. Fight me.
Somehow, as a heel, The Rock became even funnier than he had been as an eyebrow-raising face, cutting beautiful promos on The Hurricane, Sacramento (garnering one of the loudest heel reactions of all time), Steve Austin, Goldberg, and, most memorably, Toronto. He tore into Toronto like Bray Wyatt would your mother's underwear drawer and his clowning might just be one of the finest examples of a heel wrestling promos that has ever been committed to film.
“Stronger than a bear, quicker than a buck, the best thing to hit Canada cos the Maple Leafs SUCK!”
1. Ric Flair
Ric Flair had thunderous charisma back in the 1980s/90s. His WWE run of the 2000s was good, and he did fine work on the stick but with jet-flying, Horseman and NWA Champion Flair, he practically shouldered an entire network of wrestling promotions on his back with his promos.
There are two styles of Ric Flair promo: bad-mannered posturing, and bug-eyed screaming. Both drew fans and dollars in their millions. He may not have always been completely lucid, but when Ric Flair had worked up a head of steam he simply was entertainment.
His best promo: “I live the life of a king, because the people have allowed me to."
Ric Flair has cut some belting promos in his time, from the sweaty & borderline deranged “with a tear in my eye” speech post-Rumble 1992 to his sweaty and 10 out of 10 deranged cutting of his own head hardway live on camera, but if you want a full, three-course-meal Ric Flair, check out this beauty from WCW.
Flair and Eric Bischoff's rivalry had reached its peak and The Nature Boy called The Bisch out. But while most wrestlers in the modern era would have demanded that Bischoff come out and patiently wait until they arrived or until Michael Cole transition to an ad for Sonic Chicken, Flair elbow drops his clothes, rips up hundreds of dollars worth of real money, strips to his boxers and throws his shoes into the crowd.
It's an absolutely mental yet completely engrossing promo, proving far and away why Ric Flair remains the absolute best mic worker in wrestling history.
“IF YOU CUT ME OFF, WHEN WE COME BACK I'LL BE NAKED!”