By Harrison Chase and Henry Johnson
With SummerSlam 2015 around the corner, it’s worth stating the obvious: WWE is complicated.
Professional wrestling is stuffed with backstories, rivalries, and plot twists so numerous that Christopher Nolan would need a second viewing. Take, for instance, the longtime feud between Randy Orton and Triple H.
It’s easy to pick out classic moments from this rivalry; a much harder task is picking a winner. Triple H has had success against Randy Orton in direct matchups, notably at Unforgiven in 2004 and Wrestlemania XXV. But it’s also important to look at their records in other matches. Scissors might conquer paper, but paper beats rock, which beats scissors. The direct contest doesn’t capture the power balance in the game or in WWE, which is long on standoffs and short on transitivity. To paraphrase Ric Flair, to be the man, you either have to beat the man or beat some men who beat him.
Luckily, we have a better way of determining who in the blue hell is best: the Elo rating system. The system, originally designed to rank chess players, looks at a competitor’s victories and the strength of his competition. In WWE terms, that means if an unknown beats a world champion, you can expect the underdog’s Elo rating to jump substantially.
The data we used are from profightdb.com, which catalogs wrestling matches over various associations. Worth noting is that we used data strictly from WWE—the WWF years (which ended in 2002) aren’t factored into these calculations. For 2 v. 2 matchups, we created two “teams”, then split the winning team’s gains and losing team’s losses, meaning we assumed that teammates contributed equally.
|4||C. M. Punk||2098.638||667|
|16||Big E. Langston||1921.344||148|
|17||The Big Show||1918.298||1135|
|29||Rob Van Dam||1782.759||463|
|33||The Great Khali||1763.639||487|
|40||A. J. Lee||1727.603||221|
|59||John Bradshaw Layfield||1656.578||150|
|64||Bad News Barrett||1637.387||157|
|71||Montel Vontavious Porter||1619.714||269|
|83||Big Daddy V||1596.593||29|
|100||Alberto Del Rio||1573.219||619|
According to the Elo ratings, Randy Orton is the greatest wrestler in WWE history. If we use Elo (and suspend disbelief regarding scriptedness), we would expect Randy Orton to have a 91.9% win probability against Triple H. His stiffest competition comes from John Cena, whom the system grants a 49.8% chance of victory against Orton. Heavyweight World Champion Seth Rollins isn’t as formidable as Orton quite yet—historical performance suggests Orton would have a 78.2% chance of beating the young star. Rollins may be the best there is, but Randy Orton is the best there was.
We can also see how the system thinks SummerSlam will pan out. According to the ratings, Cesaro has an 84.7% probability of beating Kevin Owens. Broken-nosed John Cena (78.1%) is favored to take the belt from Seth Rollins. And in one of the most talked-about rematches in WWE history, The Undertaker (54.5%) is predicted to avenge his loss to Brock Lesnar.
These predictions shouldn’t be taken too seriously. To begin with, Elo ratings are designed for one-on-one matchups, which the WWE strays from frequently. Our methods also don’t properly credit WWF success. Most importantly, Vince McMahon’s team may not feel any obligation to obey historical probability. But as facebreakers and bodyslams go, it’s as close as we can get to quantitative truth. The real answers will come Sunday.
And that’s the bottom line.
If you’re interested in seeing the match data or the full rankings, check out our GitHub account. Think your favorite wrestler isn’t getting proper credit? Leave us a comment or send an email. And, as always, keep up with the club on Twitter.