When do pro wrestlers reach their peak? by Chris Harrington

July 2013

Have you done any research into there being any sort of correlation between the age of performers and the quality of matches? - Cory G.

That's a good question. Here's my verbose reply (complete with footnotes and oodles of disclaimers). 

When I think about this, there's two major elements which make it rather hard to quantify:

a) How do we measure "quality of matches"?
b) How do we allocate the responsibility for the "quality of the match"?

For the first question, we need some kind of performance metrics. I chose to use "Wrestling Observer Star Ratings 3 stars and higher" for WWF/WCW/ECW 1985-2013 which are available on the starratingslist.blogspot.com

(This, of course, does activate a host of disclaimers: this list is based on Dave's opinion, this is only for matches that he saw and chose to explicitly rate versus a general comment such as “very good match”, this is a rating for the entire match in the context of the time, place, crowd, etc. Lastly, this is a single rating based on his opinion at that point in time which is given to both performers.) 

Alternatively, I could take something like the Wrestling Observer Awards for Best Wrestler (or Technical Wrestler) and see if there is a correlation between age and when people place. I didn't have a database of those results handy. Another alternative would be harvesting my OCELOTalgorithm to look at when do you reach your highest rating relative to your age. (I'm still building that age database for WWF performers 1970+ since that covers thousands of people.) Lastly, I could take a thirdly subjective list such as PWI Rankings 1991-current and index that with people's ages. That also covers thousands of people, so that list is still being built.

Thus, I ended up with the original proposition: the 3+ star ratings list which was already in a form that I could quickly access.

Second, how do you "credit" someone for their match. Last week I looked "isolating the best singles wrestlers" basedon the same dataset. One thing that jumped out to me is that depending on your methodology, you can get some polar opposite results depending on what matches you choose to include.

What I mean by this is that if you look purely at singles matches with two competitors (A vs B), someone like Kane does poorly (on average his opponent will drop almost 1/2 star.) However, if you include multi-person singles matches (things like Elimination Chamber or Money in the Bank Ladder Matches), Kane actually flips to be a positive quarter-star effect on his opponents. Why? Because those sorts of matches are, in general, pretty good and each person's individual influence on the match is somewhat diminished.

Some of this is because of a flawed approach I took (which counts feuds and thus overcounts feuds among multi-person singles matches), but some of it illustrates my overall quandary - how much or how little effect does anyone really have their (already very subjective) match rating?

In essence, there is the false-positive that if you get good feuds when you're at one age and bad feuds when you're at other one, the final implication might be questionable whether it's a true representation of your actual skills.

 Other things that I believe will play a significant role include WWE's age policies (only really exceptional draws/workers usually stick around after they turn 40) and whether it's number of years of experience or pure age that matters more.

 With all of that said, I took a quick look at my data to see what it would say. (I again reinforce that this is a great question once I figure out exactly how I want to quantify all these conflicting thoughts!)

Final Dataset: 339 wrestlers (wrestlers on ratings lists that have known birthdays), 1,646 matches featuring at least one of these 339 wrestlers and was rated 3 stars or higher (covering three federations- NWA/WCW, WWF/WWE, ECW).

Things I'm seeing:

1. There's a lot of ways to compare the data.

We could look at each person and figure out where their career "peaks" in respect to the rest of the rated matches. We could look at a wrestler's performance against other wrestler's in their same age bracket. We could look at average age for a match but that is a little distorting (a 25 year old and a 41 year old having a match together is a lot different than two 33 year olds). We could look at a matrix of age of competitor A versus age of competitor B. Each of these approaches can yield a different conclusion.

 2. Tag Match versus Singles Matches likely play a significant difference in "peak ages".

My initial analysis suggests that the age 34 to the age 36 corridor plays an important role, especially in singles matches (where a wrestler's average star rating appears to be consistently higher than at other points in their career). Age 35 is a peak for tag wrestlers with strong negatives from 36 to 41.

In general, there seems to be 33 and below is tag wrestler time and 34 above is singles wrestler time. There's some odd outliers (huge pop at age 45 for singles matches which was driven by Terry Funk, Ric Flair, DDP and HBK/Undertaker) that would need to be normalized.

Second approach: 

Let's use the votes of many wrestling fans to isolate some of the pro wrestling leaders each year.  We'll start with an archive of 1980-2002 Wrestling Observer Awards (and runner-ups)...

 I suggested that a Star Rating List wasn't sufficient to capture everything so we would want to look at larger list - such as the Wrestling Observer Awards Balloting. 

I had 195 birthdates covering the 244 wrestlers selected from certain categories.

Here were the "positive" categories I looked at from 1980-2002 (average age of top 5 finishers):
MOST CHARISMATIC (34.7) - 23 years
MOST IMPROVED (28.5) - 23 years
MOST UNDERRATED (29.4) - 23 years
WRESTLER OF THE YEAR (34) - 23 years
BEST FLYING WRESTLER (26.6) - 22 years
BEST ON INTERVIEWS (34.5) - 22 years
BEST HEEL (34.1) - 17 years
BEST BABYFACE (33.5) - 17 years
STRONGEST WRESTLER (30) - 10 years
HARDEST WORKER (32.2) - 7 years (missing 1984?)det
BEST BRAWLER (32.7) - 8 years
BEST GIMMICK (30.0) - 16 years
BEST BOX OFFICE DRAW (35.9) - 6 years
SHOOTER OF THE YEAR (29.9) - 6 years

Most Appearances (includes the winner and top four runner-ups)
Ric Flair: 92 times
Hulk Hogan: 45 times
Chris Benoit: 39 times
Jushin Liger: 29 times
Steve Austin: 28 times
Mick Foley: 25 times
Mitsuharu Misawa: 23 times
The Rock: 21 times
Manami Toyota: 21 times
Ted DiBiase: 21 times
Kenta Kobashi: 20 times
Chris Jericho: 19 times
Sting: 18 times
Bret Hart: 18 times
Shawn Michaels: 18 times
Great Muta: 18 times
Bobby Eaton: 17 times
Kurt Angle: 16 times
Rey Misterio Jr.: 15 times
Terry Funk: 15 times
Atsushi Onita: 14 times
Sabu: 14 times
Akira Maeda: 14 times
Vader: 14 times
Roddy Piper: 13 times
Shinjiro Otani: 12 times
Satoru Sayama: 12 times
Owen Hart: 12 times
Jimmy Snuka: 11 times
Stan Hansen: 11 times
HHH: 10 times
Steve Williams: 10 times
Bruiser Brody: 10 times
Jim Cornette: 10 times
Road Warrior Animal: 10 times

I haven't done any Tag Team Stats (2 or 3 man teams) or best match or best feud stats (yet).

Average Age by Year for Matches in the Dataset
1980: 33.4 years old (8 people)
1981: 29.4 years old (11 people)
1982: 31.7 years old (32 people)
1983: 31.2 years old (35 people)
1984: 34.1 years old (10 people)
1985: 31.0 years old (10 people)
1986: 31.3 years old (36 people)
1987: 30.3 years old (37 people)
1988: 30.9 years old (35 people)
1989: 33.5 years old (34 people)
1990: 32.4 years old (38 people)
1991: 31.9 years old (34 people)
1992: 31.1 years old (33 people)
1993: 32.2 years old (34 people)
1994: 33.2 years old (37 people)
1995: 32.1 years old (36 people)
1996: 32.7 years old (39 people)
1997: 33.4 years old (41 people)
1998: 31.5 years old (33 people)
1999: 31.8 years old (33 people)
2000: 31.3 years old (32 people)
2001: 32.3 years old (32 people)
2002: 33.9 years old (36 people)
1980-2002 average: 32.0 years old (244 people)

Table of Appearances in Wrestling Observer Awards (winner/top 5)