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Dean Malenko’s 1996/1997 Retrospective: Was He The Right #1 For PWI 500?

Pro Wrestling Illustrated ranked Dean Malenko as the number one professional wrestler in the graded period of August 1996 to August 1997. PWI 500 has become a list that fans and wrestlers debate, first published in 1991. However, Malenko’s number one ranking became heavily criticized, and fans continue to discuss the decision today.

Is Dean Malenko the best wrestler of the grading period?

Even in the Holiday 1997 edition of PWI, the PWI 500 special edition, editor Stu Saks notes in his column, From the Desk, that their decision to rank Malenko number one would bring controversy and debate. Saks reasoning is that there wasn’t a dominant wrestler during the grading period, unlike in previous years. Thus, they relied on the category known as ‘technical ability.’ But, in hindsight, was that the right decision?

Saks noted that Japanese wrestler Mitsuharu Misawa, who finished second, would need help reaching the number one spot in an American magazine. That questions whether or not Misawa should have been the number one spot but wasn’t because of a potential lack of sales.


Malenko’s first four months of the grading period were not notable. The grading period starts with Malenko losing at Hog Wild to Chris Benoit and Rey Mysterio Jr. in a WCW Cruiserweight Championship match in five days. Malenko worked with Lord Steven Regal, Brad Armstrong, and Chris Jericho to close out August and into the beginning of September, but that included a loss to Jericho, who had recently joined WCW, on the September 2nd edition of Nitro. Malenko continued a losing streak on Nitro, losing to Alex Wright on September 30th.

Malenko’s level of competition, compared to the likes of Steve Austin, Misawa, DDP, and probably the rest of at least the top thirty wrestlers on the list, is a bit weak. Sure, Malenko is a fantastic technical wrestler, but defeating lower-level talent doesn’t ultimately mean anything. For example, Malenko winning matches against Mr. JL doesn’t make a fan believe he can prevail against the New World Order.

At WCW Halloween Havoc 1996, Malenko won the WCW Cruiserweight Champion from Rey Mysterio Jr. and held the title until WCW Starrcade 1996, losing to the Ultimo Dragon.


The start of 1997 was more successful for Malenko as Malenko started the year winning matches against Mysterio and Eddie Guerrero and recaptured the WCW Cruiserweight Championship from Ultimo Dragon at Clash of the Champions 34 on January 21st, one day after having lost to Dragon on WCW Nitro.

Malenko’s notable opponents during this reign were Mysterio, Eddie Guerrero, and Lord Steven Regal. There were several time-limits draws with Guerrero and Regal. The reign ended at Superbrawl VII after losing to Syxx. However, it wouldn’t take long for Malenko to regain gold when Malenko won the WCW United States Championship by defeating Eddie Guerrero at WCW UnCensored 1997. Despite winning a title outside the Cruiserweight division, Malenko’s opponents continued to be from the division on television.

Malenko retained the title against Benoit at WCW Spring Stampede 1997, winning the match by disqualification. On television, Malenko defended against Yuji Nagata and Chris Jericho on Nitro.

MAY 1997 THROUGH AUGUST 1997 (End of the grading period)

Malenko retained the WCW United States Championship against Jeff Jarrett at Slamboree 1997, but on the June 9th episode of Nitro, Jarrett won the title via submission. Malenko wrestled Eddie Guerrero and Rey Mysterio Jr. shortly after losing the title and came out on the losing end. To end the grading period, Malenko failed to regain any championship and, at WCW Road Wild 1997, teamed with Jarrett on the losing end against Chris Benoit & Steve McMichael.

When looking at the total grading period for Malenko, I don’t think there’s any way to justify Malenko as the number one wrestler for 1997. There’s no denying his ability, but in a year where there wasn’t a genuinely dominating competitor like there was in years past, Malenko’s number-one spot still doesn’t make much sense.

Misawa may have been the number one wrestler, but I understand the nature of the magazine business and wanting to have American fans buy the magazine. However, Steve Austin deserves some number-one spot consideration. Even in losing efforts, Austin’s series of matches with Bret Hart is far better and more memorable than Malenko’s winning the WCW Cruiserweight Championship for WCW United States Championship.

Undertaker had a more substantial grading period, as well. Taker won his feud with Mankind, overcame Paul Bearer turning on him, won the WWF World Championship at WrestleMania XIII, and kept the title to SummerSlam, having successfully defended against Mankind, Sid, Ahmed Johnson, Faarooq, and Vader.

Those few guys from the top ten were arguably more deserving than Malenko for the number-one spot in 1997. Who would you consider as other options? Or was Malenko the best choice?

Leave your thoughts below!

Thanks for reading.

Bob Colling Jr. View All

34-year-old currently living in Syracuse, New York. Long-time fan of the New York Mets, Chicago Bulls, and Minnesota Vikings. An avid fan of professional wrestling and write reviews/articles on the product. Usually focusing on old-school wrestling.

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