Wrestling is a mix of athletics and theater, and the theater aspect of it has always allowed wrestlers to push their careers well past the point when a pure athlete would have hung it up. With advances in medical and training science, wrestlers can perform at higher levels at older ages than before. Fans mocked the 1997 WCW cage match between Roddy Piper and Hulk Hogan at Halloween Havoc as “Age in the Cage,” but Piper was 43 and Hogan was 44. Today, AJ Styles is 45, Rey Mysterio is 47, and both are seemingly still close to their athletic peaks—hell, AEW’s Bobby Fish is 45 and still being booked as part of a young, hip stable, and Chris Jericho is 51 still having classic, bloody world title matches. I am not here to talk about spry 40-year-olds, though. I want to talk about the rise of the wrestling gerontocracy—40 is the new 30, and maybe 60 is the new 40. There is something really compelling about watching older wrestlers strap up and get into the ring. They aren’t just battling against their opponents, but visibly fighting that universal battle against the passage of time.
The recent pay-per-view built around the 73-year-old icon Ric Flair in a tag team bout billed as his final match drew 6,800 fans and approximately 25,000 PPV buys, both of which were the biggest indie wrestling numbers since All In in 2018. Coming off that success, Flair accompanied his son-in-law Andrade to Puerto Rico, where he seemed to be setting up another final match against 74-year-old Puerto Rican wrestling legend Carlos Colón. Despite the financial success of the show, Flair looked like he barely survived it, and said on a podcast several days later that he became dehydrated and passed out twice. Parts of that match resembled Kimbo Slice in his final MMA fight against Dada 5000, in which Dada suffered cardiac arrest. Despite Flair’s close call, I imagine similar stars of similar ages and promoters are seeing the financial success of that show and wondering how much a Hulk Hogan or Jerry Lawler retirement show would draw.
WrestleMania 38 saw then 75-year-old Vince McMahon wrestle and defeat SmackDown announcer and former NFL punter Pat McAfee, even taking one final Stunner from “Stone Cold” Steve Austin afterward. AEW has 63-year-old Sting diving off balconies and going through tables. On the indies, 73-year-old former NWA enhancement talent Mike Jackson is still walking the ropes and throwing out topes, and recently wrestled for GCW and Impact Wrestling. Seventy-five-year-old Bushwacker Luke just worked a six-man tag at an AIW show, and the Rock ’n’ Roll Express, with Robert Gibson (64) and RIcky Morton (65), are still making towns, wrestling for GCW, New Japan, and ROH in the last couple of years.
In Mexico, AAA built its 30th-anniversary Triplemanía shows around a mask tournament where the losers advance to a final match; the first round included 62-year-old Rayo de Jalisco Jr. and 70-year-old Canek (along with the relatively young and spry 57-year-old Villano IV, 56-year-olds L.A. Park and Blue Demon Jr., and 55-year-old Último Dragón). Rival promotion CMLL is building its big anniversary show around a four-team tournament, with the winners facing off for masks or hair, and one team consists of longtime rivals 59-year-old Atlantis and 68-year-old Fuerza Guerrera.
In Japan, a recent Jumbo Tsuruta memorial show saw 1976 Olympian Yoshiaki Yatsu make his return to wrestling at 66, competing with a prosthetic right leg after a diabetes-related amputation. That same show saw 80-year-old Great Kojika win a 10-man street-fight tag match with a chokeslam (to be fair, he put his hand on a guy’s throat and that guy jumped in the air and landed on his back). Sixty-four-year-old hardcore pioneer Atsushi Onita is still rumbling 37 years after his first retirement and 27 years after his second. Last year he formed the FMW-E promotion, which focuses on explosion matches, and had a wild exploding barbed wire match in New Jersey against Matt Tremont earlier this year.
Older wrestlers have often been used as special attractions over the years. During WWE’s Attitude Era, 76-year-old Mae Young got put through a table by the Dudley Boyz and was still wrestling into her 80s, even teaming with fellow octogenarian Fabulous Moolah. The great Lou Thesz had his last match at 74 against Masa Chono in Japan, and Giant Baba was wrestling right up until his death at the age of 61. Still, it has seemed like these days the candle has been burning longer and longer and that the elderly are having a moment.
While often old-person wrestling is more of a nostalgia trip than a great show, there have been some absolute corkers over the years. Here are six of the best matches with wrestlers over the age of 60. The Rage With Some Age! The Jurassic Classics! The Crow’s-Feet Clashes!!
Gypsy Joe vs. Necro Butcher
IWA East Coast Under the Gunn (July 13, 2005)
Gypsy Joe was an original hardcore icon, diving off cages in the 1970s years before Jimmy Snuka. In this match he was 72 and still participating in the type of ugly, grimy fights that he made his name from 30 years before, bleeding and brawling in West Virginia high school gyms, resplendent in filth. Joe worked his matches like a horror movie villain, slowly walking his way through offense and responding with blisteringly hard shots of his own. It was like the original Gypsy Joe had died years ago and his corpse had been reanimated to raise havoc again. That kind of no-selling style can rankle opponents: New Jack famously shot on Gypsy Joe and beat him with a bat, but Necro Butcher was a tremendously giving opponent and flung himself into chairs and down bleacher steps to make Gypsy Joe look like a killer. Necro did have some moments of offense, including flinging multiple chairs at Joe’s giant head. The finish saw Necro put Joe on a steel chair and fly off the top rope, impaling himself on the chair when Gypsy moved, and then getting rolled up. In many ways this was a virtuoso one-man performance from Necro, but even elderly Gypsy Joe had this aura of plodding menace that really made the match.
Beulah, Terry Funk, and Tommy Dreamer vs. Edge, Lita, and Mick Foley
ECW One Night Stand (June 11, 2006)
This was part of WWE’s second ECW One Night Stand PPV, and was a microcosm of the violence, crudeness, and misogyny that made ECW what it was, for better and for worse. Foley had turned heel after his WrestleMania 22 hardcore match with Edge, with a reprise of the anti-ECW gimmick he had done in 1995. “You are telling me I sold out. You’re right, I sold out Madison Square Garden.” This was Funk’s last major promotion match (he would continue to have sporadic indie matches up until 2017) and he delivered a truly memorable performance. The match was built around the affection and love the audience had for Funk and the brutality he was willing to put himself through once again. It was like watching the wrestling version of a Catholic Passion play.
Funk opened the match brawling with Foley and cracking him with unpulled punches to an already damaged eye. Foley was able to take the advantage, though, by throwing a barbed-wire board into Funk’s face, causing him to bleed heavily and scream about his damaged eye (which was a callback to Funk’s legendary Empty Arena match with Jerry Lawler 25 years earlier; this match had more Easter eggs than your most referential Marvel movie). Funk got carried to the back, allowing Foley, Edge, and Lita to brutalize Dreamer and Beulah, but he came back stumbling through the crowd, with his eye bandaged and waving a barbed-wire-wrapped 2-by-4. Beulah set the 2-by-4 on fire and Funk smashed it into Foley’s back, igniting his flannel and sending him through a barbed-wire board. Funk was then sent into the same board by Edge, and he and Foley writhed painfully in the barbed wire as Edge speared Beulah and pinned her in an inappropriate way. Funk, covered in blood, screaming and crying to be cut out of the barbed wire, is a memorable final image of his career. Funk is the greatest wrestler of all time and one of the things that made him so great was his willingness to push the boundaries, to always give more and go further, and he couldn’t step away from the spotlight any other way.
Jerry Lawler and Dr. Tim Linder vs. Bill Dundee and Dr. Brian McCarver
Nashville, Tennessee (March 4, 2011)
This match saw longtime rivals 61-year-old Jerry “The King” Lawler and 67-year-old Bill Dundee yet again dance their infinite dance, this time as part of a fundraiser for a child-abuse prevention center, where both wrestlers were teamed with local untrained primary care physicians. This was a master class on the value of old tricks, working a match around tremendous limitations, and still delivering something undeniably entertaining.
Lawler is one of the greatest punchers in wrestling history, and punches don’t age nearly as much as other parts of one’s game. Dundee may be one of the few wrestlers whose fists are Lawler’s equal, and we got some iconic punch exchanges between the two. Dr. McCarver was clearly having a ball playing the weaselly cheap-shot Jimmy Hart role, and was constantly choking Lawler from the outside whenever he had a chance. He also passed a (possibly imaginary) foreign object to Dundee, who worked over Lawler with it. This all led to a big spot where Dr. Linder decked Dundee with a slap and body-slammed his fellow physician. The match ended with Lawler dropping Dr. McCarver with a pile driver to the delight of the crowd and Dr. Linder getting the pin.
It was a delightful match that even people who are not versed in the workplace politics of the Chester County, Tennessee, health care system would thoroughly enjoy. Lawler and Dundee may have wrestled each other more times than any pair of wrestlers ever. Their earliest match we have records for is from 1975 and the most recent was a tag match in 2014, and that familiarity, along with the affection of the Tennessee crowd, who have been watching them their whole lives, allows them to put on a show despite their physical limitations and the inexperience of their partners. A Rolling Stones concert in 2022 isn’t what it was in 1972, but sometimes you just want to hear “Paint It, Black.”
Kazunari Murakami and Minoru Suzuki vs. Yoshiaki Fujiwara and Yoshihiro Takayama
Tenryu Project Genichiro Tenryu Retirement ~ Revolution FINAL (November 15, 2015)
Yoshiaki Fujiwara looked 60 when he was 30, and never really aged. He also always wrestled like an elderly sensei in a jujitsu dojo who can tap 25-year-olds at will. Fujiwara is one of wrestling’s all-time great problem solvers, tough as a cafeteria steak and willing to put himself in the line of fire just to lure his opponent into a mistake. This was a wild brawl on the undercard of Genichiro Tenryu’s retirement match (against Kazuchika Okada, in a match that made the long list for this column). Suzuki and Murakami are an incredible team of sneering pricks, strutting in, talking shit, and slapping fillings out of people’s mouths. Takayama is a pro wrestling and MMA icon who was in one of the most insane PRIDE fights of all time against Don Frye (if you haven’t seen that, stop reading this and go watch it right now). He had been slowed by a stroke (after the Frye match he would often try to re-create something similar in the wrestling ring, and that led to a lot of head trauma), but this was a “turn back the clock” performance in which he went to war.
At 66, Fujiwara couldn’t stand in front of younger MMA fighters and exchange blows for long, but he ate blistering shots in the hope of finding an opening. Fujiwara was primarily matched up with his old trainee Minoru Suzuki, and there were a bunch of great moments of Fujiwara guile. Suzuki dropped him with a body shot and kicked him to the apron, but when Suzuki tried to pull him into the ring, Fujiwara grabbed a heel hook in the ropes. Another time, Suzuki locked in a leg lock only to see Fujiwara shift his weight and lock in a nasty counter ankle pick that sent Suzuki scurrying to the rope. The finish was a classic bit of Fujiwara business: Murakami dropped Fujiwara with a straight right hand to the jaw and peacocked around the ring talking shit. When Fujiwara stumbled to his feet, Murakami wound up for another punch, only to get caught in the eponymous Fujiwara armbar for the win. No matter the wear on his tires, if you give Fujiwara the tiniest window, he is squeezing through.
Sting and Darby Allin vs. FTR
AEW Dynamite (September 22, 2021)
AEW has booked Sting perfectly. You can’t ask for a more successful use of an old guy: The promotion has kept his aura, hasn’t asked him to do anything he can’t do, and has put him in a position to succeed. Sting, to his credit, has kept in tremendous shape and is willing to try some wild stuff, especially as he has gotten more comfortable back in the ring. This wasn’t really stuntman Sting, but more of a classic tag match, with FTR working over Darby Allin and building to the big Sting moments. You could tell FTR was thrilled to be in there with a hero of theirs; they just flew off of every Sting right hand and got up high on all of the body slams. Allin was a delight as well, flying all over the ring (including diving to the floor with a Coffin Drop, getting caught by both members of FTR, and getting drilled spine first into the ring apron). FTR did a great job beating on Allin, which really set the table for a Sting house-on-fire moment, and Sting has always been one of wrestling’s great houses on fire. The finish was tremendous, with Sting foiling a Tully Blanchard plot and driving Dax Harwood’s head into a chair. Sting then put him in a Scorpion Death Lock, and Allin flew off the top rope to hit a Coffin Drop on Cash Wheeler on the apron to stop his save attempt. When his comeback started, it seemed impossible that 63-year-old Sting could live up to his aura, but it would be hard to call his final run anything less than an unqualified triumph.
Black Terry vs. Mr. Condor
Zona 23 Hardcore Mexico (December 5, 2021)
This was a hellacious fist fight between two men in their 60s in the middle of a Mexican junkyard, and it was my favorite wrestling match of 2021. Zona 23 is a lucha extrema promotion that runs out of a junkyard; its shows always have a postapocalyptic feel to them, like some local warlord has forced people to fight in a temple of horrors.
Black Terry is the greatest over-60 wrestler ever. While there is very little footage of him in his 20s, 30s, and 40s, as he got older he just wandered the tiny arenas of Mexico having these incredibly violent and visceral brawls. He has the aura of an old gunslinger—William Munny pulled off the ranch for one final job—and that weariness and what he is willing to do in spite of it are what make him so captivating. Condor met Terry in the aisle and they immediately start exchanging hard chops and punches; the camera work is super close and you can see flesh and bone shift with every hook and jab they land on each other’s jaws. The pace of this match was incredible and these two winged punches at each other over and over for 12 minutes while losing blood at a concerning rate. Condor smashed a beer bottle against the ring post and used it to carve Terry’s forehead up and later smashed a car windshield over his head, littering the ring with glass. Terry responded by breaking a bottle of his own and opened up Condor with rights, lefts, and headbutts. All of this happened while both men grunted and panted and screamed at each other. There is something special about big-time wrestling showcasing athleticism and pageantry, but wrestling is also this: the two meanest old men at a Tultitlán cantina getting off their stools, wandering to the junkyard next door, and beating the ever-living dogshit out of each other.
Phil Schneider is a cofounder of the Death Valley Driver Video Review, a writer on the Segunda Caida blog, host of The Way of the Blade podcast, and the author of Way of the Blade: 100 of the Greatest Bloody Matches in Wrestling History, which is available on Amazon. He is on Twitter at @philaschneider.