Rivalries are one of the most important aspects of professional wrestling. They are the lifeblood of any promotion dating back to the ‘70s, presenting narrative storylines in which fans can become invested, giving them a reason to tune in every week.
Given how long pro wrestling has been around, certain rivalries exist between wrestlers that continue to stand apart from most others.
In most cases, these feuds will capitalize on these wrestlers’ undeniable in-ring chemistry, their skills on the microphone, or the unique gimmicks that a wrestler bases his entire onscreen personality on. In some cases, these rivalries can even exist outside the ring, giving the wrestlers’ actual matches a distinct air of authenticity and real-world drama.
Here are 15 of the greatest wrestling rivalries of all time, from classic NWA feuds from the 1980s to more recent feuds that have headlined WWE programming today.
John Cena vs. Randy Orton
In the late 2000s and early 2010s, one of the longest-running rivalries was between John Cena and Randy Orton, the major hero and villain (known in the business as “heel” and “face,” respectively) of the WWE at the time.
In many ways, Orton and Cena were the perfect polar opposites of one another. Both came up in WWE’s midcard circuit around the same time and became major stars for the promotion by the mid-2000s. While Cena was all about “hustle, loyalty, and respect” — his trademark catchphrase — Orton based his persona on merciless aggression, disrespecting numerous veteran WWE legends and targeting his opponents’ weaknesses (including mental and physical) to win.
Whether it was their 2009 feud or their early 2010s rivalry that saw Cena trying to defeat the Authority-backed WWE champion Orton, there’s no denying the two had pure chemistry that harkened back to the in-ring relationship between the Rock and Steve Austin. It didn’t matter if they faced each other in a Hell in a Cell match, an Iron Man match, or a TLC match — the two men consistently wowed viewers time and time again.
Mankind vs. The Undertaker
Hardcore legend Mick Foley has had a number of fantastic rivalries in WWE’s Attitude Era. His lengthy feuds with The Rock or Triple H were always fun to watch, but far and away, the most talked-about rivalry Foley was ever involved in was his 1997 feud with The Undertaker under his Mankind moniker.
With WWE promoting both men as otherworldly, demonic wrestlers who were impervious to pain, Taker and Foley’s rivalry at the time was one of the premiere reasons why WWE gained a foothold over their rating rival, WCW, during the Monday night wars. Their matches were brutal, hard-fought, and capitalized brilliantly on Foley’s penchant for taking ridiculously dangerous bumps.
Their feud ultimately culminated at the 1997 King of the Ring. In what would become the most (in)famous Hell in a Cell match of all time, Foley came close to seriously injuring himself for life, throwing himself from the top of the Hell in a Cell cage onto a table 15+ feet below and proceeding to wrestle the entirety of the match after somehow getting to his feet. For better or worse, it’s one of the best, most shocking matches in wrestling history and the most iconic of Foley’s career.
Triple H vs. Shawn Michaels
In the late 1990s, Shawn Michaels and Triple H forever changed the wrestling world with the creation of their classic and controversial stable, D-Generation X. Presenting a more comedic, albeit villainous faction that took the WWE by storm, DX pushed the envelope when it came to things you could say and do on primetime television for the time, essentially creating the shock-value format of the Attitude Era.
Unfortunately, the pairing of Michaels and Triple H came to a premature end owing to a serious back injury Michaels suffered at the 1998 Royal Rumble, forcing him to temporarily retire from in-ring action for the next four years. By the time he had returned in 2002, Triple H had become one of the top wrestlers working for WWE, prompting a feud between the two that would last nearly four years.
Having tag teams dramatically split up is a staple of pro wrestling, but few wrestlers had as brutal and personal battles as the Game and the Heartbreak Kid. While the two were still the best of friends off-screen, their continuous matches were the backbone of WWE’s Ruthless Aggression Era throughout the early to mid-2000s.
Hulk Hogan vs. “Macho Man” Randy Savage
Macho Man Randy Savage and Hulk Hogan were two of the biggest names in wrestling at the tail end of the 1980s. Talented in the ring and their promo shoots, their larger-than-life personalities led to mass popularity among WWE fans, with both wrestlers considered the faces of the company at the time.
With how over they were with fans, it was only natural that WWE booked them into a tag team together. Dubbed The Mega Powers, they found a common enemy in the form of the “Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase and his enforcer, André the Giant. Joined by Savage’s wife/manager, Miss Elizabeth, the two were an unstoppable force, regularly combating Dibiase’s own Mega Bucks faction throughout the summer of 1988.
Jealousies on Savage’s part eventually led to the team splitting, setting the stage for a climactic showdown at WrestleMania V. With how popular they were among the WWE Universe, seeing the two go head to head was like watching Captain America face Iron Man, resulting in a match of epic proportions. While Hogan won the match, the real winners were wrestling fans, even if personal problems behind the scenes between the two soured their backstage relationship.
The Hardy Boyz vs. Edge & Christian
No two tag teams in wrestling history have been as influential as the high-risk specialists, the Hardy Boyz, or their egocentric counterparts, Edge & Christian. Making their appearances on WWE during a time when tag team wrestling lacked the same mass appeal as singles matches, the two teams forever changed the landscape of tag team-based wrestling, setting the stage for practically every team that’s followed in their footsteps.
The Hardyz and Edge & Christian rose to prominence in WWE not long after one another, with the Hardyz introduced as the villainous successors to Edge & Christian’s faction, The Brood. Making names for themselves in the first-ever tag team ladder match at 1999’s No Mercy, the two teams would regularly feud over the WWE tag team championships for the next two years.
For how often they wrestled each other, though, the feud never felt stale or drawn out, with their common rivals, the Dudley Boyz, also appearing in their long-standing rivalry. Each time they wrestled, you just knew these teams would go bigger and take drastically dangerous risks. It was unpredictable, it was chaotic, and it was exciting whenever they faced off.
Hulk Hogan vs. Ric Flair
Ric Flair and Hulk Hogan were two of the main faces of pro wrestling in the 1980s, with Flair having become the finest athlete NWA had on their roster and Hogan rising to the top of the WWE around the same time. So when Flair found a contract waiting for him with WWE in 1991, it was only a matter of time before the two famed wrestlers stepped into the squared circle together.
Like later WWE feuds such as Orton and Cena, the genius behind Flair and Hogan’s working relationship was their vastly different wrestling styles and personas. Hogan was known as the ultimate face of WWE for the time, portrayed more as a superhero who advocated good sportsmanship and hard work when it came to winning his matches. Flair, on the other hand, did whatever it took to win, lying and cheating his way to the top, all the while bragging about his many accomplishments.
Flair may have had better matches with the likes of Randy Savage during his tenure in WWE, but most fans tend to remember his rivalry with Hulk Hogan best about his first stint in the company.
Sting vs. the nWo
One of the main reasons WCW triumphed over WWE in terms of viewership numbers in the mid-1990s was due to the emergence of the New World Order. Cleverly turning the decades-long fan-favorite wrestler Hulk Hogan into a heel, the group was presented as a band of villainous outsiders (predominantly ex-WWE wrestlers) seeking to take over WCW for themselves.
The moment they first appeared on WCW programming, the nWo made an immediate impact, beating some of the company’s top talents and capturing the World Championship in the process.
With all of the company’s best wrestlers defeated, the one remaining wrestler who stood up against the nWo was Sting, who’d recently transformed himself from an ‘80s surfer to a black-and-white-clad avenging angel trying to prevent WCW from falling into the nWo’s corrupt hands. The matches between Sting and the nWo’s membership were only average at best, but the presence Sting commanded whenever he confronted the nWo from the WCW rafters was always a sight to behold.
Ric Flair vs. Dusty Rhodes
One of the biggest feuds Ric Flair enjoyed during the apex years of his career in the 1980s was against Dusty Rhodes. Like many of Flair’s feuds over the years, Flair and Rhodes were essentially mirror opposites of one another. With Flair symbolizing the upper crust of society — using numerous unethical ways to cheat his way to victory and then flaunting about it — Rhodes was more of a blue-collar, working-class wrestler trying to rise to the top of NWA.
Compared to other wrestlers of his time, Rhodes didn’t look or sound like any other wrestler. He seemed more like an average joe that happened to get to where he is through hard work and perseverance alone. With naysayers like Flair looking down on him, the “son of a plumber,” Rhodes presented the distinct possibilities of what one could accomplish in life through a never-say-attitude and stringent work ethic.
From singles matches to larger eight-man tag team matches between Flair’s Four Horsemen stable and Rhodes’s ragtag group of the Road Warriors and Nikita Koloff, their feud was one of the main reasons to tune into NWA programming as often as possible, helping establish the company as an alternative to WWE.
Undertaker vs. Kane
Few wrestling rivalries are as cinematic as the feud between Undertaker and his onscreen brother, Kane, two of the most dominant, physically imposing wrestlers of WWE’s Attitude Era. Originally billed as the Undertaker’s long, lost brother, Kane made his debut at 1997’s Badd Blood: In Your House, interrupting the first Hell in a Cell match and costing the Phenom his victory over Shawn Michaels.
From there, the story between the two men would only be explored further on WWE television, their story full of Gothic twists and turns that cast them each as the villain and hero from month to month.
The matches themselves were decent at best, but the chemistry the two shared provided WWE with one of its best and most consistently eventful storylines. Unlike other rivalries of its day, this feud wasn’t focused on a championship, nor was either wrestler interested in proving their athletic superiority over the other. It was purely based on revenge, with WWE presenting their feud more as a nightmarish familial storyline straight out of a horror movie than anything else.
John Cena vs. CM Punk
One of the more exciting and original feuds of recent memory has to be John Cena’s rivalry with CM Punk. Their feud began in 2011, with Punk delivering his influential “pipe bomb” segment that blurred the lines between a scripted and improvised wrestling promo.
As a result of his promo, Punk became one of the most talked-about wrestlers on the WWE roster. With the news that his contract would be expiring, Punk’s ascension as an anti-authoritarian man of the people was made all the more interesting when he voiced his intent to capture the WWE Championship and exit the company with the title around his waist.
With Cena as the reluctant champion of Vince McMahon, the two had a barnstormer of a match together at the 2011 Money in the Bank, with Punk emerging as the victor. While they’d go on to reignite their feud in 2013, their wholly unpredictable 2011 feud set the rivalry apart from any other in modern WWE programming.
Hulk Hogan vs. Andre the Giant
There isn’t a more iconic wrestling match than the 1987 WrestleMania main event between André the Giant and Hulk Hogan. Initially established as close friends, André’s sudden betrayal of then-champion Hulk Hogan led to a feud between the two that would become one of the most celebrated in WWE’s long history.
With the shady wrestling manager, Bobby Heenan, at his side, André was billed as a force to be reckoned with in the WWE — the literal biggest challenge Hogan had to overcome during his reign as champion.
Overcoming the odds, Hogan defied expectations and beat André at WrestleMania III, picking André up off his feet and slamming him down on the canvas in what would become one of the most defining moments in WWE. The victory helped cement Hogan’s place at the top of WWE television, leading to his successful tenure as the face of pro wrestling the world over.
Ric Flair vs. Ricky Steamboat
Many of Ric Flair’s feuds in the 1980s benefited from worked promo shoots and personality-driven chemistry. When you look at the actual quality of the matches Flair shared with certain wrestlers, though, no one comes remotely close to Flair’s most athletic in-ring nemesis, Ricky “the Dragon” Steamboat.
While Flair’s work with Hulk Hogan or Dusty Rhodes might be better from a story-based perspective, Flair’s matches with Steamboat remain the stuff of legend. Wrestling for literal hours on end, Steamboat and Flair showed that wrestling wasn’t all about fake punches and predetermined moves but was rooted heavily in pure athleticism, endurance, and physicality, as reflected in each one of their matches.
No matter how often they met in the ring, Flair and Steamboat’s matches were routinely seen as some of the best in 1980s wrestling, seeming like a precursor to the similarly hard-hitting wrestling styles of AEW and NJPW matches today.
Shawn Michaels vs. Bret Hart
The most fascinating thing about Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart’s famous (and at times, infamous) rivalry was how much they genuinely hated each other backstage. Though the two have since gotten over their issues with one another, in the late 1990s, Hart and Michaels could barely stand to be in the same room.
Yet with how personal their animosity was for each other, the two men still delivered routinely amazing matches opposite one another that fully hid their real-life ill will for each other.
Michaels and Hart’s rivalry will forever remain eclipsed by the controversial Montreal screwjob at the 1997 Survivor Series, but even before then, you could almost see the thinly-veiled hatred they had for one another during their segments together, making their matches that much more believable and realistic to see.
The Rock vs. “Stone Cold” Steve Austin
If Hulk Hogan and Macho Man Randy Savage were considered the faces of WWE in the late 1980s, The Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin were the mainstay attractions during the company’s famous Attitude Era.
Utilizing a more smashmouth promo style and brawler-heavy wrestling moves, the two stars had a lot more similarities than differences between them, with such comparisons almost always resulting in fantastic in-ring chemistry.
From the first time they headlined a WrestleMania together in 1999 to their final showdown at 2003’s WrestleMania XIX, the two were sure to raise the roof of any WWE event every time they shared the ring.
Vince McMahon vs. “Stone Cold” Steve Austin
The feud that forever changed the wrestling world, WWE owner Vince McMahon struck gold when he began portraying himself as the tyrannical head villain of WWE programming in late 1997. Adopting the onscreen persona of Mr. McMahon, McMahon began using his corporate power for his own ends and means, establishing himself as the definitive heel of the Attitude Era.
While numerous wrestlers would stand up against McMahon’s reign of terror, McMahon’s most persistent rival remains Stone Cold Steve Austin. A brash, tough-talking, Texas redneck who loathed any kind of authority figure and trusted no one, he was a natural foil for McMahon’s more bureaucratic rule of the WWE, standing for everything McMahon hated.
It didn’t matter that Vince McMahon only personally wrestled sporadically, his rivalry with Austin helped WWE beat WCW in the ratings and is still widely considered one of the objectively greatest feuds in pro wrestling to date.
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Richard Chachowski is a freelance writer based in New Jersey. He loves reading, his dog Tootsie, and pretty much every movie to ever exist (especially Star Wars).