The annual yearbooks of the Wrestling Observer during the 1980s were where the results of the annual Wrestling Observer Newsletter awards were announced. Right alongside them in each issue was a list of wrestlers under the heading “Wrestling Observer Ratings.” Editor Dave Meltzer had polled a select group of people for a ranking of their top wrestlers at that point in time.

In 1986, the prelude to the ratings specified “these ratings are based strictly on in-ring ability and work-rate when it comes to wrestling skill and athletic ability.” It’s my assumption that this description applies to the ratings prior to 1986, but I have been unable to verify this to date. In previous years, there’s no specification of criteria for this poll.

I can’t find any meaningful discussion of these polls anywhere online, which is a shame, as these provide a nice look back into how wrestlers were viewed during their career. This can be a useful tool for evaluating a wrestler’s career and ensuring that their historical evaluation isn’t forgotten.

It should be noted that 1984 ranked 100 wrestlers, but I excluded 76-100 from that list for the purpose of awarding points later in the article.

Here is a table of all the placements in the lists. The 1981 list is incomplete, only pieced together from listings in later rankings.

You can find every yearbook from 1982 to 1990 on the Internet Archive. https://archive.org/details/wrestling-observer-yearbook

Wrestler1981198219831984198519861987198819891990
Ric Flair1111111212
Bob Backlund2531
Harley Race341527316156.5
Nick Bockwinkel4826.5745567
Andre the Giant51435
Dusty Rhodes61564.5
Dory Funk7132972
Bruiser Brody862352026
Hulk Hogan97641
Antonio Inoki10197144
Ted DibIase11382032742521
Mil Mascaras134060
Ken Patera142430
Jack Brisco151641
Tommy Rich163860
Stan Hansen171079426375158.542
Don Muraco171734
Greg Valentine183722465348
Terry Funk20205052154157416
Pat Patterson2156
The Superstar/Masked Superstar24121033
Dick Slater2528251742
Ivan Koloff283943
Jumbo Tsuruta2921283833324332136
Ricky Steamboat3023211012810332
Killer Khan313637.55572
Jimmy Snuka32226.5
Roddy Piper339183436
Dick Murdoch343373.55130363128
Tatsumi Fujinami3535168738174
Sgt. Slaughter3518431
Super Destroyer374240
Paul Orndorff3911111324
Terry Gordy409118630232628
Kerry Von Erich414437.51921
Adrian Adonis4231314
Iron Sheik435464.554
Junkyard Dog442548
David von Erich453420
Barry Windham4736256711432948
Jerry Lawler4830335761636348
Rick Martel494366.53518381543
Buzz Sawyer552623475017335341
El Canek56454441
Kevin von Erich5755322863
Randy Savage59745518101919161725
Tito Santana60564460586573
Masa Saito6124159205455
Dos Caras7164.5376459
Bob Orton7329121652
Dynamite Kid475222971.563
Butch Reed271471674
Satoru Sayama/Tiger Mask I2219432
Chavo Guerrero67.51722352459
Riki Choshu136913.5354431
Animal Hamiguchi46.5262342.5
Davey Boy Smith517237173
Yoshiaki Yatsu573019440.56265
Akira Maeda2413105131436
The Cobra/George Takano122654.5675244
Chris Adams53581168.5
Nobuhiko Takada2127727.51022
Mark Rocco/Black Tiger514233356668.5
Kuniaki Kobayashi32201647.547
Rocky Johnson58696
Mitsuhara Misawa/Tiger Mask II4714121194
Bobby Eaton73.5569567.5223
Jerry Blackwell494050
Jim Duggan4970.52830
Tully Blanchard7061251313.51718
Bret Hart48371517212120
Kengo Kimura3949443838
Magnum TA454334
Genichiro Tenryu6722222711512
Terry Taylor652918184460
Scott McGhee5243
Don Kernodle23
Brad Armstrong63392520224662
Otto Wanz32
Bad News Allen40695350
Hercules Hernandez36
B. Brian Blair37
Yoshiaki Fujiwara68454524343763
Steve Williams3814345250.545
Buddy Landel4042.574.5
Mike Rotundo63533660.5
Wahoo McDaniel41
Jimmy Garvin6654
Giant Baba45
Hiro Saito46285874.5
Pedro Morales46
Jerry Stubbs46.5
Hector Guerrero47575373
La Fiera4849
Tony Atlas48
Stong Machine #249
Buddy Rose5769
Abdullah the Butcher50.5
Gran Hamada66.56046.5
Great Kabuki50.5
Pirata Morgan5152393939.537
Steve Kiern52
Jim Brunzell53
Ricky Morton54212371.554
Michael Hayes566861
Keith Hayward5974
Ron Starr6271
The Grappler57
Brett Sawyer58
Keiji Mutoh/Great Muta/Super Black Ninja58392925157
Curt Hennig59591224125
Ole Anderson59
Jay Youngblood6373
Robert Gibson6070
Ron Bass60
Billy Robinson61
Arn Anderson704635121119
Dino Bravo62
Paul Jones62
Koko B. Ware6475.67
Manny Fernandez64.574.5
Super Strong Machine656059
Dennis Condrey666674
Lanny Poffo66
Isamu Teranishi6875
Gino Hernandez67.5
Jesse Barr68
Blackjack Mulligan69
Joe LeDuc70
Kazuo Yamazaki70.516191640
Superstar Graham71
Carlos Colon72
David Schultz72
Eddie Gilbert7362211460.557
Larry Zbyszko73
Bruno Sammartino Jr.75
King Kong Bundy75
Krusher Khruschev75
Akira Nogami47
Ashura Hara7049
Atlantis455569
Bam Bam Bigelow334475
Barry Orton47.5
Biff Wellington37
Big Boss Man4965.5
Billy Travis55
Blackman75.67
Bobby Fulton3170
Brian Pillman7274.52824
Buddy Roberts64
Cactus Jack65.5
Chris Benoit/Pegasus Kid3032.510
Chris Champion61.571
Dan Kroffatt46735
Danny Davis63
Doug Furnas65
El Dandy50
El Hijo del Santo564653
Emilio Charles6268
Hiroshi Hase323618
Jack Victory37
Jake Roberts51
Jason the Terrible6454
Jeff Jarrett495549
Jerry Estrada67.54527
Joe Malenko57
Johnny Smith704872
Jushin Liger/Keiichi Yamada6528521
Ken Wayne50
Kensuke Sasaki41
Kenta Kobashi7014
Lex Luger1938
Lizmark6068.5
Mando Guerrero67.5
Marty Jannetty3134
Masa Fuchi73
Masaharu Funaki51413526
Masahiro Chono46.5
Minoru Suzuki67
Naoki Sano69
Negro Casas313639.511
Osamu Kido75.67
Owen Hart27362023
Pat Tanaka222756
Paul Diamond65
Rick Rude3033
Rick Steiner6952152429
Road Warrior Hawk756472
Ron Simmons58
Ronnie Garvin71
Sam Houston4040.540
Samson Fuyuki4232.5
Scott Steiner2315
Shawn Michaels54.561.556917
Shinichi Nakano69
Shinya Hashimoto4243
Shiro Koshinaka5025102739
Shunji Takano5865
Stan Lane423364
Steve Armstrong59
Sting45263456
Super Astro663852
Super Boy58.5
Takayuki Iizuka67
Tama68.5
Tim Horner7256.5
Tom Prichard5443
Tommy Rogers4773295330
Tony Anthony71
Toshiaki Kawada1888
Tracy Smothers61
Tsyuoshi Kikuchi51
Yoshinari Asai50.513

I’ve put together rankings of the various wrestlers covering three consecutive years each, assigning points on the basis of 1st place being worth 75 points, 2nd 74 points, and so forth. The grouping is to minimize the effect of a single year on an individual’s ranking.

WrestlerSum 82-84Sum 83-85Sum 84-86Sum 85-87Sum 86-88Sum 87-89Sum 88-90
Ric Flair225225225225224224223
Bobby Eaton22.589.5158208209.5192.5195.5
Nobuhiko Takada55104173192211.5208.5188.5
Ted DibIase197197203216215192178
Genichiro Tenryu963117157168185200
Akira Maeda52115181200200196165
Owen Hart0049122192199179
Bret Hart2867128159175169166
Barry Windham91100125146210192148
Randy Savage81145181180174176170
Jushin Liger/Keiichi Yamada001159130193220
Curt Hennig17171781133180187
Mitsuhara Misawa/Tiger Mask II2991155191196132139
Terry Gordy132200203184169149151
Keiji Mutoh/Great Muta/Super Black Ninja01855102135159181
Arn Anderson063677135170186
Jumbo Tsuruta141129125120121140177
Ricky Steamboat174185198198134139117
Riki Choshu133133137129.5170.5135.5118
Tully Blanchard2172129176.5184.5179.5117
Shiro Koshinaka002677143166152
Tatsumi Fujinami16919721021021614577
Kazuo Yamazaki5.55.55.560117177153
Brad Armstrong135010114416114098
Toshiaki Kawada000058126194
Rick Steiner0073192137160
Negro Casas0045858576.5101.5
Terry Funk106111120965491151
Steve Williams03810014212891.580.5
Shawn Michaels0021.53656101.5146
Yoshiaki Fujiwara8397011412513394
Pirata Morgan025498698110.5112.5
Masa Saito113113616712314599
Eddie Gilbert031772131132.596.5
Stan Hansen20220818916111481.576.5
Terry Taylor11581161631489048
Buzz Sawyer13210811412812510158
Chris Benoit/Pegasus Kid00004689.5155.5
Masaharu Funaki0002560101126
Tommy Rogers0029327973116
Sting0003181123112
Hiroshi Hase00044448498
Dan Kroffatt00003099140
Naoki Sano0000070137
Ricky Morton02277130112.557.526.5
Dick Murdoch70.573.51111311339348
Yoshiaki Yatsu65122175164.5121.560.525
Rick Martel83.5108.5137157999433
Pat Tanaka0005410312369
Kuniaki Kobayashi44100160144.5117.557.529
Scott Steiner0000053114
Kengo Kimura376496971087638
Sam Houston003671.5107.571.536
Bruiser Brody217218200177106500
Brian Pillman00045.553.5101.5
Lex Luger000005795
Rick Rude000004689
Stan Lane00034777755
Jerry Estrada00008.539.588.5
Yoshinari Asai0000025.588.5
Marty Jannetty000004587
The Cobra/George Takano64114135.580.530.53356
Samson Fuyuki00003477.577.5
Bam Bam Bigelow00437575331
Jeff Jarrett00027484848
El Hijo del Santo002050503023
Super Astro00010104862
Chavo Guerrero121.515414793691717
Kenta Kobashi00000668
Hiro Saito030789666181.5
Shinya Hashimoto000003467
Dynamite Kid17421919512151.517.517.5
Davey Boy Smith711301831175883
Atlantis0000315259
Mark Rocco/Black Tiger59102118845117.517.5
Mike Rotundo36362304055.555.5
Tom Prichard00022555533
Jerry Lawler108774741544128
Bobby Fulton0000454551
Bad News Allen3643665649260
Tito Santana5232016344532
Jim Duggan32.580.599.5944600
Hector Guerrero029487145263
Magnum TA3164106754200
Biff Wellington0000393939
Jack Victory0039393900
Johnny Smith000063438
Big Boss Man000002737.5
Kensuke Sasaki00000035
Buddy Landel03669.569.533.501.5
Harley Race18215510979.534.519.50
Jason the Terrible00012343422
Animal Hamiguchi79.5132.5136.586.533.500
Ashura Hara0006333327
Super Strong Machine011274433170
Gran Hamada25.525.51600029.5
Masahiro Chono00000029.5
Akira Nogami000002929
Shunji Takano00182929110
Barry Orton00028.528.528.50
Greg Valentine12310781512800
La Fiera02855552700
Ken Wayne0000262626
El Dandy00000026
Tsyuoshi Kikuchi00000025
Jake Roberts0025252500
Lizmark00001623.523.5
Tim Horner00423.523.519.50
Michael Hayes0202828231515
Emilio Charles000001422
Billy Travis0002121210
Chris Champion00014.514.519.55
Joe Malenko000001919
Ron Simmons00000018
Super Boy0000017.517.5
Steve Armstrong00000017
Road Warrior Hawk0001131716
Tracy Smothers00000015
Danny Davis0000131313
Dennis Condrey01020221220
Buddy Roberts0012121200
Paul Diamond0000111111
Doug Furnas000001111
Cactus Jack00000010.5
Takayuki Iizuka0000099
Minoru Suzuki0000009
Nick Bockwinkel119.572.53230900
Mando Guerrero00008.58.58.5
Chris Adams411068372.57.57.50
Tama0007.57.57.50
Shinichi Nakano0000777
Robert Gibson0162222600
Tony Anthony0000005
Ronnie Garvin0055500
Masa Fuchi0033300
Butch Reed18019113162200
Manny Fernandez11.50001.51.51.5
Koko B. Ware01212.3312.330.3300
Blackman000.330.330.3300
Osamu Kido000.330.330.3300
Rocky Johnson25777070000
Kerry Von Erich127.5150.511255000
Paul Orndorff19318011552000
Satoru Sayama/Tiger Mask I18317311644000
Roddy Piper1671408240000
El Canek63986735000
Dick Slater1581449334000
Antonio Inoki62373232000
Bob Orton1711488424000
The Grappler0191919000
Dos Caras62.5682917000
Kevin von Erich1131056113000
Jesse Barr0888000
Ron Starr1419195000
Killer Khan99.563.5254000
Keith Hayward1719192000
Krusher Khruschev0111000
Adrian Adonis180135620000
Don Kernodle5353530000
Sgt. Slaughter175117450000
The Superstar/Masked Superstar173109430000
Hercules Hernandez4040400000
B. Brian Blair3939390000
Hulk Hogan174105350000
Scott McGhee5757330000
Stong Machine #22727270000
Jerry Blackwell8962260000
Iron Sheik55.533.5220000
Lanny Poffo1010100000
Buddy Rose26770000
Dory Funk1145140000
Jay Youngblood16330000
Isamu Teranishi9910000
David von Erich985600000
Jimmy Snuka123.549.500000
Ken Patera984600000
Bob Backlund1164500000
Don Muraco1014200000
Andre the Giant1034100000
Super Destroyer703600000
Jack Brisco953500000
Ivan Koloff703300000
Jerry Stubbs29.529.500000
Junkyard Dog792800000
Jimmy Garvin322200000
Pat Patterson202000000
Brett Sawyer181800000
Tommy Rich541600000
Mil Mascaras521600000
Dino Bravo141400000
Dusty Rhodes72.511.500000
Carlos Colon4400000
King Kong Bundy1100000
Otto Wanz44000000
Wahoo McDaniel35000000
Giant Baba31000000
Pedro Morales30000000
Tony Atlas28000000
Abdullah the Butcher25.5000000
Great Kabuki25.5000000
Steve Kiern24000000
Jim Brunzell23000000
Ole Anderson17000000
Ron Bass16000000
Billy Robinson15000000
Paul Jones14000000
Gino Hernandez8.5000000
Blackjack Mulligan7000000
Joe LeDuc6000000
Superstar Graham5000000
David Schultz4000000
Larry Zbyszko3000000
Bruno Sammartino Jr.1000000

Let’s use this data to look at some Wrestling Observer Newsletter Hall of Fame candidates.

Here’s a quick reminder of the instructions to voters:

“The criteria for the Hall of Fame is a combination of drawing power, being a great in-ring performer or excelling in one’s field in pro wrestling, as well as having historical significance in a positive manner.  A candidate should either have something to offer in all three categories, or be someone so outstanding in one or two of those categories that they deserve inclusion.”

Only three people were ranked in all seven groupings – Ric Flair, Ted DiBiase, and Terry Gordy. Flair never finished below second and DiBiase never below eleventh. Terry Gordy peaked at third and never fell below 21st in these three-year intervals. All three of them are in the Hall of Fame. This is also the case for the wrestlers who appeared in six of the seven lists: Ricky Steamboat, Tatsumi Fujinami, Riki Choshu, and Randy Savage.

There are six wrestlers who appeared in the top 50 for five different three-year periods: Jumbo Tsuruta, Akira Maeda, Nobuhiko Takada, Bobby Eaton, Bret Hart, and Barry Windham. Of them, Windham is not in the Hall. Windham only appeared on the ballot once in 1998, when he immediately fell off the ballot due to receiving less than 10% of the vote.

When Windham initially appeared on the ballot, it looks like he was largely dismissed as a flash in the pan in terms of in-ring quality. However, for a period of seven years, he was a top 25 in-ring performer according to this poll.

It would be interesting to see what would happen if he were on the ballot again. I don’t feel like there’s a groundswell of support for his induction, but in terms of in-ring, he feels like a decent candidate based off these numbers. His name barely came up in the voting for the Flair/Thesz or Most Outstanding Wrestler awards. He finished fourth in the voting for Best Heel in 1988, and never showed up on those lists again. His historical importance seems tied entirely to his membership in the Four Horsemen.

I hardly feel like he’s an obvious inductee, but there is an argument for his induction and it’d be interesting to see how he performed in 2021.

There are five people who appeared in these lists four times – Bruiser Brody, Stan Hansen, Mitsuhara Misawa, Tully Blanchard, and Genichiro Tenryu. All but Blanchard are in the Hall.

Tully Blanchard is currently on the ballot, but in a backdoor sort of way as he’s grouped with JJ Dillon and Arn Anderson. Despite being a group that was together for about one year, they’ve hung around 40-50% of the vote since going on the ballot in 2017.

Let’s assess Blanchard as an individual. It’s obvious he was an in-ring great in his era, and his promo skills were top shelf. He wasn’t ever a big draw outside of the Horsemen, though, and his career was cut short due to various issues. He feels like a borderline case to me. I’m a big Hall guy, so I wouldn’t be bothered if he did get in, but I also think it’s hardly a miscarriage of justice if he isn’t inducted.

The last individual I’ll specifically point out from these lists is Owen Hart. He finished in the top ten in the ‘86-‘88, ‘87-‘89, and ’88-’90  blocks. If you add the points together for 1986-1990 as one single block, Owen is seventh in that time period – finishing only behind Flair, Eaton, Takada, DiBiase, Tenryu, and Maeda, all of whom are in the Hall. Owen Hart continued to be a fantastic in-ring worker beyond this time period, and went on to have classic matches with his brother Bret.

There is precedence for Halls of Fame ignoring career length requirements for candidates who died tragically early. Addie Joss was a dominant pitcher between 1902 and 1910. Joss died of meningitis in April 1911. The Baseball Hall of Fame decided to waive the ten-year career requirement for him, clearing the way for his induction in 1978.

Ross Youngs was another early baseball player who played from 1917-1926 before dying in 1927 due to Bright’s disease. He was inducted in spite of his early death in 1972.

Drazen Petrovic was a rising star in the NBA in the early 90s who died in a car wreck in 1993, when he was just 28 years old. Though he had only just reached All-NBA levels that year, he was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2002.

In all three cases, high-level athletes who died mid-career were evaluated not only on what they had accomplished to date, but what they would accomplish moving forward. I think it’s more than reasonable that if you look at Owen Hart and examine how WWE would trend towards featuring higher levels of in-ring work in the years after Hart’s 1999 death, you conclude that he would have particularly benefitted from that time period and moved up the card of the company.

I think Owen Hart is the strongest of the three candidates mentioned in this article. He was an elite in-ring performer for his time period who was destined for greater things. He inspired workers in the next generation and his influence will continue to grow as time goes by thanks to the work of the Owen Hart Foundation.

You can follow Fred’s writing on Twitter @flagrantrasslin and get more of his writing on Patreon.