There are plenty of things that make wrestling great. Great matches, killer promos and shocking moments are what keeps eyeballs on wrestling but it's rivalries and feuds that are the canvas for those matches, promos and moments.
Arenas are filled and pay-per-views are bought thanks to the appetite to see two wrestler/teams that hate each other duke it out in the squared circle and this week we look at the greatest feuds and rivalries in wrestling history.
Of course, we have some criteria to separate Tanahashi vs Okada from Michaels vs The Undertaker.
Cagematch ratings in both rivalries and feuds
Accumulation of points corresponding to the star ratings given by Dave Meltzer (***** or more= 10 pts, **** 3/4= 8pts, ****1/2= 6pts, ****1/4= 5pts, ****= 4pts, ***3/4= 3pts, ***1/2= 2pts, ***1/4= 1pt)
Average rating of matches (mean and mode) in the history of a rivalry.
Awards given to the feud from Pro Wrestling Illustrated and The Wrestling Observer.
The historic relevance of the feud in the company in which the feud took place.
#1- Stone Cold Steve Austin vs Mr. McMahon
It is really the final part of the criteria above that puts Austin and McMahon at the top of this list. While this feud is one of only four to win back to back Best Feud awards in the 40 year history of the Observer awards, one of two to achieve repeat victories in the PWI awards (Flair vs Luger is the other) and one of just two to finish in the top ten in Cagematch's list of both best feuds and best rivalries. It's the impact on WWE that makes this rivalry Number 1 on our list.
Mr. McMahon, a couple of weeks after WrestleMania XIV when Austin won his first WWE Title, was challenged to a match by the champion on the 13th April 1998 RAW after a couple of months of friction between the pair. The match which never happened after Dude Love interfered to attack Stone Cold headlined a RAW would break the 83 week winning streak that Monday Nitro had in the ratings in the Monday Night War.
For the next 16 months, Austin and McMahon would be the main event feud and the rivalry that defined the Attitude Era with Austin fending off McMahon's charges and at one point beating his rival in a Steel Cage Match at St. Valentine's Day Massacre. Despite winning a Loser leaves Town match when his proxy The Undertaker lost to Austin in July 99, Vince returned to WWE TV two months later (WWE not living up to stipulations shock) but Austin and McMahon would not cross swords that often in the next 18 months thanks to a prolonged injury absence from Stone Cold.
It would be when Austin aligned himself with his hated rival at WrestleMania X-Seven, turning heel in the process that many say that the Attitude Era ended and when WWE lost its mojo. Ratings went gradually down and the allure of Austin as a major star waned also but in those 16 months when Austin and McMahon did battle they changed the WWE and wrestling.
#2- Hiroshi Tanahashi vs Kazuchika Okada
This is the feud that brought New Japan Pro Wrestling out of the doldrums that it laid in in the 00's and catapulted the company to the heights it rode to in the last decade.
Fresh off an excursion in TNA that wasn't as successful as hoped, Okada pulled of a massive shock to beat IWGP Champion Hiroshi Tanahashi to win the top belt in NJPW in what would be the second of fifteen matches between the pair.
The 12/2/12 match would actually be the worst rated of the fourteen matches rated by Dave Meltzer at ****1/4. Five of the Okada vs Tanahashi matches would get the 5-star or more treatment with another five getting a quarter mark short of the full five with the 117 points gathered in the star ratings/points alignment putting them at number 1 in that particular category.
Total points from Dave Meltzer's star ratings
Hiroshi Tanahashi vs Kazuchika Okada 117pts
Toshiaki Kawada vs Mitsuharu Misawa 86pts
Hiroshi Tanahashi vs Shinsuke Nakamura 80pts
Mitsuharu Misawa vs Kenta Kobashi 70pts
Bryan Danielson vs Nigel McGuiness 67pts
Kenta Kobashi vs Toshiaki Kawada 56pts
Ric Flair vs Ricky Steamboat 52pts
Dragon Lee vs Hiromu Takahashi 44pts
AJ Styles vs Christopher Daniels 44pts
Kazuchika Okada vs Kenny Omega 40pts
This rivalry is also part of the four to get back to back Observer awards and Tanahashi/Okada is one of just four to have a mean average of **** 3/4.
This rivalry would break down barriers in the new streaming world drawing more eyes on puroresu and built two stars that would become the joint aces of their company.
#3- Ric Flair vs Ricky Steamboat
The greatest trilogy in wrestling perhaps? Flair vs Steamboat was the perfect clash of lifestyle philosophy that you can get. Flair, who lived the playboy lifestyle versus Steamboat, the family man. But in the ring, their chemistry produced three 5-star classics that were each contenders for the greatest matches in wrestling history at that time.
With a mode average of *****, one of only two rivalries to produce such a number, Flair vs Steamboat can count themselves unlucky not to win either the Wrestler Observer Award or the PWI Award in 1989, losing to the Flair vs Terry Funk feud that followed the final match of the trilogy at Wrestle War 89. Flair/Steamboat finished second with 33.9% of the vote, 0.2% behind the winner, the smallest margin between 1st and 2nd in the awards history. All three matches finished in the top 3 of the Best Match vote the same year with the three contests taking 53.6% of the vote between them. Cagematch has the 1989 feud sixteenth in it's feuds list and fifth in its rivalries chart with the 52 points gathered from Meltzer's star ratings putting this feud the second best North American rivalry in the points list.
Average Star Rating (Mean)
Kazuchika Okada vs Kenny Omega 6 stars
Johnny Gargano vs Adam Cole 5 stars
Misawa/Kawada/Kobashi vs Taue/Tsuruta/Fuchi 5 stars
Hiroshi Tanahashi vs Kazuchika Okada 4 3/4 stars
Ric Flair vs Ricky Steamboat 4 3/4 stars
Misawa/Kobashi vs Kawada/Taue 4 3/4 stars
Toshiaki Kawada vs Mitsuharu Misawa 4 3/4 stars
#4- The Undertaker vs Shawn Michaels
The main memories of this feud were set in the final 14 months of Shawn Michaels career with two matches at WrestleMania 25 and 26 with the WM 26 match being the final match of his career (that match at Crown Jewel was just a figment of our imaginations ok) but there is an argument to say that their encounter 13 years earlier was better than the classics in Phoenix and Houston.
Many point to the moment when HBK accidently hit Undertaker with a steel chair, costing him the WWE Title as the moment that the stars aligned to start the Attitude Era. Their feud united Michaels and Triple H to form DX and their Hell In A Cell match at Badd Blood got 5-stars and is still seen by some as the best Cage/Cell match in wrestling history.
The pair didn't face off in the ring during Michael's second stanza of his career until the final minutes of the 2007 Royal Rumble which is seen as the greatest finale in Rumble history and their two Mania matches ended up being the final course befitting HBK's Hall of Fame career.
In both Cagematch's Top 20 Feuds and Rivalries lists (3rd in Feuds and sixteenth in Rivalries) their feud is also in the Top 10 in the North America list in seventh and average rating of 4 and a half stars puts this feud in the top 15 in average rating category.
#5- Kenny Omega vs Kazuchika Okada
The feud that made Kenny Omega the "Best Bout Machine", every match these two have contested has broken the Meltzer star rating system with every match hitting six or more stars, with the final of the tetralogy getting seven from Dave.
The voters of the Observer awards also agree with Meltzer's view of the matches with the Wrestle Kingdom 2017 and Dominion 2018 matches winning Best Match honours in their respective years. Only two other pairs have achieved back to back awards in this category (Michaels/Taker and Misawa/Kobashi) and the 77% vote is the highest percentage for a winner of Best Feud.
Highest vote percentage of Best Feud winners in the WON Awards
Kenny Omega vs Kazuchika Okada (2017) 77%
Steve Austin vs Vince McMahon (1998) 48%
Johnny Gargano vs Tomassa Ciampa (2018) 44%
Hiroshi Tanahashi vs Kazuchika Okada (2013) 42%
Jon Moxley vs Eddie Kingston (2020) 40%
Von Erichs vs Fabulous Freebirds (1983) 39%
Shawn Michaels vs Chris Jericho (2008) 38%
Ric Flair vs Terry Funk (1989) 34%
Ted Dibiase vs Junkyard Dog (1982) 33%
Jerry Lawler vs Tommy Rich/Austin Idol (1987) 33%
Johnny Gargano vs Adam Cole (2019) 33%
Omega and Okada would also win the PWI Feud of the Year in 2017, the first time a feud from a wrestling company outside the Unites States would win that award. The Cagematch readers however have differing opinions of this feud with a 18th place in the rivalries list and not ranking in the top 20 in feuds yet three of the four matches that Okada and Omega would contest make it into the top 20 of greatest matches ranked on the website.
The legacy of this rivalry is undeniable. Kenny Omega would go on to face Chris Jericho during this period with the hype and success of that match giving the idea of All Elite Wrestling.
#6- El Generico vs Kevin Steen
A feud that started after Steen told his tag team partner post a defeat to The Young Bucks at Final Battle 2009 that he "hated his f****** guts", Steen and Generico waged war for the next twelve months in Ring of Honor to critical acclaim. They won Feud of the Year for 2010 in the Observer Awards, the first feud from a company outside WWE or the sport of MMA to win the award since 1996.
The readers of Cagematch also rated this feud highly with a 9.87 rating on Cagematch putting it first in their Best Feuds list with a eighth place in their rivalries list. A lot of people will point to this feud for how you should tell a story from start to finish with this rivalry putting Steen and Generico on the map in the world of wrestling.
Cagematch Top 10 Feuds
El Generico vs Kevin Steen 9.87
Samoa Joe vs CM Punk 9.86
Undertaker vs Shawn Michaels 9.84
The Smackdown Six 9.80
Hardyz vs Edge/Christian vs Dudleys 9.78
Undertaker vs Edge 9.77
Shawn Michaels vs Chris Jericho 9.76
Steve Austin vs Vince McMahon 9.75
Samoa Joe vs Daniels vs AJ Styles 9.74
Mankind vs The Rock 9.74
Steen would go on to leave ROH, joining WWE under the name Kevin Owens, where he has won multiple titles. El Generico unfortunately passed away when he saved a group of children from a burning orphanage. His protegee, Sami Zayn has been feuding on and off with Kevin since joining WWE himself.
#7- Mitsuharu Misawa vs Kenta Kobashi
A feud that spanned two companies started with Kobashi's eagerness to become the main man in AJPW, but with his tag team partner and Super Generation stablemate Mitsuharu Misawa being the man in between Kenta and his goal, it meant the friends would have to go into combat. The pair would face off ten times with three of those contests getting five stars and another three with ****3/4 given with three matches between the rivals winning three Match of the Year honours in the Observer awards (1998, 1999, 2003).
A 9.91rating on Cagematch puts their rivalry first on their list and their final encounter on March 1st 2003 in which Kenta finally climbed his Everest and beat Misawa, has a rating of 9.85 putting it first on the best matches list.
Cagematch Best Rivalries
Mitsuharu Misawa vs Kenta Kobashi 9.91
Hiroshi Tanahashi vs Kazuchika Okada 9.90
Aja Kong vs Manami Toyota 9.82
Kenta Kobashi vs Toshiaki Kawada 9.79
Ric Flair vs Ricky Steamboat 9.75
Bret Hart vs Owen Hart 9.75
Toshiaki Kawada vs Mitsuharu Misawa 9.73
El Generico vs Kevin Steen 9.73
Steve Austin vs Vince McMahon 9.70
Steve Austin vs The Rock 9.69
#8- Mitsuharu Misawa (and Super Generation Army) vs Jumbo Tsurutagun (and Tsurutagun)
A feud which didn't just contain itself with the ace of AJPW in the 80's Jumbo Tsuruta and the then emerging star Misawa, SGA vs Tsurutagun saw multiple 5 star matches between not just the captains of their stables but also in tag team matches involving Misawa and Toshiaki Kawada against Jumbo and Akira Taue and a trilogy of 6-man matches with Kenta Kobashi and Masa Fuchi joining their teams for those classic matches (The 20/4/91 match is one of my favourite matches of all time).
Misawa vs Tsuruta would win Feud of the Year in the WO Awards in 1990 with the Super Generation Army vs Tsurutagun feud getting the honours in 1991. It would be the feud that gave rise to Misawa and his journey to being one of the all-time greats. But it's expected conclusion with Misawa beating Tsuruta in a passing of the torch moment never happened with Jumbo falling ill with hepatitis, curtailing his full-time career but would lead to the heel turn of Misawa's teammate Kawada who himself rose to prominence in the feud in his battles with Akira Taue.
#9- Von Erichs vs Fabulous Freebirds
A feud that ignited on Christmas night in 1982 when the Freebirds (Michael Hayes, Terry Gordy and Buddy Roberts) cost Kerry Von Erich the NWA World Title in a match against Ric Flair in Kerry's hometown of Dallas, the next year saw the two trios face off in a multitude of matches with Mike Von Erich replacing his brother David after his tragic death in Japan to continue the feud in 1984.
The Von Erichs and Freebirds would win back to back WON Awards being the only of the eventual four that won consecutive awards to get more than 25% of the vote in both years. A 6-man streetfight between Kerry, Kevin and Mike Von Erich and the Freebirds would also win the Best match Award in 1984.
The feud would help make World Class Championship Wrestling the No.1 promotion in North America at this time with the Von Erichs' tragedies and The Freebirds moving to other territories halting the momentum of the company from 1985 onwards. This feud would be the architype for a weekly episodic feud between two factions and the example of how a feud could boost the box office of a company.
Repeat winners of Best Feuds Winners in WON Awards and their percentages
Von Erichs vs Fabulous Freebirds (1983- 39% 1984-27%)
Misawa vs Tsuruta (1990- 20% 1991- Not Listed)
Austin vs McMahon (1998- 48% 1999- 15%)
Tanahashi vs Okada ( 2012-23% 2013- 42%)
#10- Shawn Michaels vs Chris Jericho
Set over two periods of time, Michaels and Jericho feuded over the first part of 2003 and over the second part of 2008 in which they won many plaudits for their rivalry, winning both the Observer and PWI Award in 2008, one of 14 to do that since the PWI Awards inception in 1986.
The 38% of the vote gathered by Jericho/Michaels would be the highest vote share by a winner in the 00's. The 2003 portion of the feud would finish in the Top 3 in 2003 making it the only feud to achieve the accolade of winning the best feud and ranking in the top three more than a year apart.
The readers of Cagematch have put Jericho vs Michaels in seventh in their feuds list with its 29 points gathered from star ratings putting it in the North American Top 10 list.
One of the main topics on twitter the last few years away from the AEW vs WWE discourse has been "The 2008 WWE roster was stacked". Whether it is or not is a point that is for another day (and maybe a Top Ten list for top rosters) but one thing is for sure, WWE's biggest feud in 2008 was an all-timer.