Professional wrestling has been around a long time. Starting as a carnival act, it has evolved into an international multi-million dollar phenomenon. Competitors are no longer known as "wrestlers" and are instead now only referred to as "superstars". The term "Sports Entertainment" has replaced "Pro Wrestling" reflecting the much broader reaches of the industry.
With the New Year almost upon us, it is a time for reflection. With apologies to all time greats like Gorgeous George (the first true "entertainer"), Bruno Sammartino, Buddy Rodgers (the first WWF champion), and Barry Horowitz... well maybe not... I give you my top 50 wrestl... I mean, sports entertainers since I have been watching (1983). Afterall, I can only comment on what I've witnessed, and it wouldn't be fair to try an evaluate someone's true impact just from hearsay.
Because the industry is as much, if not more about the entertainment as the quality of "wrestling", my list is mostly weighed on the impact the particular superstar made to the sport. It is not a list of how "good" each individual is as a mat-technician. Here we go:
1. HULK HOGAN
Hulk Hogan is to wrestling as Star Wars is to science fiction. I know some of the purest out there are cringing at the thought, but there is no denying that The Hulkster made wrestling what it is today. From the moment he broke the evil Iron Sheik's Camel Clutch (a feat never done prior), wrestling has never been the same. Terry Bolea had people saying their prayers and eating their vitamins all over the world.
2. VINCENT KENNEDY MCMAHON
While Hogan drew fans like never before, Vince McMahon REVOLUTIONIZED the basic structure of the industry. Until Vinny Mac came along, wrestling was made up of small territories. Wrestlers were only known locally. That all changed as McMahon purchased these territories, forming a monopoly, or empire if you will, providing wrestling with a national stage... a presence in the mainstream culture that continues to grow.
3. ERIC BISCHOFF
Yes, Eric Bischoff is at #3. Even though WCW was only at the pinnacle of sports entertainment for a mere 4 years, Bischoff's influences in the sport are unparalled. The "attitude" of today, kayfabing (breaking character), controvesy, etc. can all be attributed to this pioneer. Most importantly, Bischoff's WCW made the WWE better which ultimately saved it from bankrupcy.
4. ANDRE THE GIANT
Prior to Hulk Hogan, local and national news programs began to feature stories about a 7'3", 500 lb. man who was agile (Andre could actually perform drop kicks early in his career), strong (he'd lift four women at once on his shoulders) and charasmatic. People started to pay attention and Andre the Giant became a household name. FYI, Andre Rousimoff (his real name) could also drink 12 bottles of wine prior to a match with no (immediate) effect on his performances.
5. RIC FLAIR
Who doesn't know The Nature Boy? Even non-wrestling fans have heard of him. Being a 17 time world champion helps too. Whether heel or babyface, fans have been yelling "WHOOO" for over 20 years. Incredibly, Naytch almost didn't even get his career off the ground when early in his career, he broke his back in a plane crash that claimed the lives of 3 other men.
6. STONE COLD STEVE AUSTIN
Steve William's Stone Cold character may have saved the WWE back in the Monday Night Wars era, when WCW was beating WWE in the ratings war every week. He blurred the line between babyface and heel, a characteristic still prominent in many of the WWE supertars. Bad@ss face had never been uttered until Stone Cold came to town. His fued with McMahon carried the WWE as your average everyday people related to his desire to "kick the bosses @ss". Afterall, don't we all wish we could flip off our bosses and "stun" them to hell?
7. THE ROCK
One of the best all-time on the mic, Dwayne Johnson is now a preusing Hollywood and has become a fairly mainstream actor known world-wide. The People's Eyebrow somehow became a universal symbol known world wide, meaning "I'm the sh!t and I'm about to kick your @ss!"
8. RODDY PIPER
We can't have heroes if we don't have villians... and Piper was the greatest villian (heel) of all. From cracking Jimmy Snuka over the head with a coconut, to fighting Mr. T, to beating up Morton Downey Jr., Piper is arguably the most controversial heel in the history of the sport. His Piper's Pit segment was the predecessor to all the great "talkshow" segments seen in recent history.
9. VERNE GAGNE
Who is this you ask? Verne Gagne was a former wrestler and promoter of an organization out of Mineapolis called the AWA (American Wrestling Alliance). The AWA was third in the Big 3 of the 1980's (WWF, NWA, AWA) and employed supertars before they were supertar, launching careers of legends such as Hulk Hogan, Curt Henning, The Road Warriors, Jesse Ventura, Bobby Heenen, and more.
10. PAUL HEYMAN
He's loud, he's obnoxious, he's brash... but he's helluva innovator within the industry. ECW defined a new generation of superstar and paved the way for a new extreme style that is at the forefront of almost every match today.
11. THE ROAD WARRIORS
The most popular tag team of all time, The Road Warriors are the only team to hold all three major tag team titles (WWF, NWA, & AWA). They redefined the tag team division with their power moves and painted faces, a look never seen before, incidentally taken from the Mel Gibson movie Mad Max.
12. JERRY "THE KING" LAWLER
A legend in the Memphis area, this former AWA World Champion is best known as the guy who slapped (and later wrestled) comedian Andy Kaufman. Jerry Lawler has made history as being the wrestler with the most championship reigns of all time. He has won 111 titles in his career.
13. BRET HART
Nobody, including myself, would have thought The Hitman would be this high on ANY list back in the mid-80s when he and partner Jim Neidhart were a mid-card tag team known as The Hart Foundation. But multiple world titles later, and whalla. Bret Hart is national hero in Canada, has a column in a Canadian newspaper, has a hockey team named after him (The Calgary Hitmen), and is currently playing the genie in the "Aladdin" play. The Montreal Screwjob is the most talked about inner-industry swerve ever, and unfortunately The Excellence of Execution never recovered.
If this list was purely about MY all time favorites, Sting may have been #1. Mixing power and high flying agility, Sting had a charisma like no other. While The Road Warriors were darker, more brutal characters defined by their face paint and ring attire, Sting wore bright tights, a colorful array of face paints, and had beach blonde hair. Half the enjoyment was wondering what he'd look like each night. But most importantly, Sting is considered the NWA/WCW franchise player, being the only superstar to never "jump ship" to the WWE. He truly carried the organization in its darkest times. Then he became Crow Sting, out of shape, older, and disinterested... an officially jumped the shark as far as I'm concerned.
15. THE UNDERTAKER
I've never been much of an Undertaker fan. But "The Phenom" is hugely popular, and although he originally came from NWA/WCW, stuck with the WWE company through the bad times making him the WWE's own "Franchise". He is currently undefeated at Wrestlemania, a streak of well over ten years. From the undead zombie who got his powers from a mysterious urn, to the supernatural comic book character, to the American Bad@ss biker, Mark Callous has been able to forever etch The Undertaker persona into wrestling lore.
16. MACHO MAN RANDY SAVAGE
Too many heel/face turns to count, Savage gained poularity in the mid to late 80s that eventually propelled him to the WWF World Championship and several runs as the Intercontinental Champion. Many inside the industry feel Hogan felt so threatened by Savage's popularity, he sabotaged his WWF career. Ironically, Hogan urged Eric Bischoff to bring in Savage in WCW's infancy. Macho Man's match at Wrestlemania III with Ricky Steamboat is considered one of the all-time greatest matches ever.
17. TRIPLE H
The only thing Paul Levesque has done (besides marry Vince McMahon's daughter, which may make him the smartest wrestler of all time) is win the WWE world championship TEN times. Also took over DX with Shawn Michaels first retirement, reaching the height of its epic popularity.
18. SGT. SLAUGHTER
A G.I. Joe character was developed based on this guy who battled for the good ol' U.S.A. A short run as a heel supporter of Iraq during Desert Storm saw him reach the top as WWF world champion. Some say this forever hurt his status in wrestling history, but he had a frikin' G.I. Joe action figure and cartoon. Enough said.
19. SHAWN MICHAELS
The Shawn Michaels era of WWF was a dark one. Upstart WCW was gaining momentum and the WWE was reeling. But Michael Hickenbrand is a multiple time world champion and is hugely popular as H.B.K. His formation of DX may have saved the WWF when eveything was about WCW's nWo.
20. BOBBY HEENEN
Arguably the most famous manager of all time, "The Brain" managed greats such as Andre the Giant, Big John Studd, Ken Patera, Mr. Wonderful Paul Orndorff, King Kong Bundy, and more. Usually the thorn in the side of Hulk Hogan, Heenen spoke for guys who had absolutely no mic skills, making them main eventers when there was nothing to work with.
21. THE VON ERICHS
Sons of the legendary Fritz Von Erich, tragedy pretty much across the board... Mike, David, Chris, and Kerry all gone before their time. The Von Erichs literally owned texas wrestling, known as WCCW (World Class Championship Wrestling). Kevin is the only remaining brother. Kerry, perhaps the most famous Von Erich, defeated Ric Flair to become the NWA World Heavyweight Champion. The Von Erich claw is one of those finishing maneuvers that will forever transcend time.
22. HARLEY RACE
Just know that his "King" gimmick in the WWF was actually at the vey END of his remarkable career. A multiple time NWA and AWA world champion. WWF gimmick started the annual "King of the Ring Tournament".
23. MICK FOLEY/CACTUS JACK/MANKIND
"Have a Nice Day!" Maybe the most extreme/hardcore performer of all time, there wasn't a bump Foley wouldn't take to thrill the crowd. Half an ear was ripped off, teeth threw his lip, a fall from an 18 ft. high steel cage, broken ribs... just a few of the many injuries suffered in the ring over his career. Reached the pinnacle as a multiple WWE world champion. Some say his winning the world title is the single most important point in the Monday Night Wars, when WCW commentator Tony Schiavonne gave away WWE Raw's ending, making fun of Cactus Jack winning the title on the pre-recoreded show. The plan backfired as millions switched over to Raw, giving the WWE momentum it never would've had.
24. THE ULTIMATE WARRIOR
The former tag team partner of Sting, The Ultimate Warrior basically had no in ring skill. He invented the "squash" match... and it was hugely poplular when the WWE focused on kids wanting their wrestlers to be superheros. The Warrior was "chosen" to carry the torch after Hulk Hogan's first retirement. Some might say he prevented a total fall off post-Hogan. Unfortunately Jim Hellwig began a downward spiral shortly after, defined by the recently released DVD "The Destruction of The Ultimate Warrior".
25. DUSTY RHODES
"The American Dream", not counting his stint as the polka-dot wearing plumber in 80's WWF. Former NWA World Champion.
26. THE OUTSIDERS (SCOTT HALL & KEVIN NASH)
Their "invasion" to WCW marked the beginning of perhaps the single greatest angle in wrestling history, taking kayfabing to an all new level. No longer were other wrestling companies "never spoken of" on tv. The Monday Night Wars had officially begun.
27. TERRY FUNK
Hardcore legend, NWA World Champion, ECW World Champion, and WWF main eventer.
28. RICKY "THE DRAGON" STEAMBOAT
NWA World Champion. Career defining fueds with Ric Flair and Randy Savage.
29. JIMMY "SUPERFLY" SNUKA
First ever ECW champion, Snuka found fame in the WWF with his "I Love You" hand sign followed by his finishing move (predecessor of The Frog Splash). Career defining moment: a superfly jump from on top of an 18 ft. high steel cage.
30. THE IRON SHEIK
"U.S.A - chaa, poo!" Some say he took the WWF world title off of Bob Backlund only to set up Hulk Hogan as an American Hero. That alone makes him a critical part of wrestling history.
31. BOOKER T
5 time WCW world champion, 10 time WCW tag team champion, WWE world champion, WWE world tag team champion. An impressive resume to say the least.
32. BIG SHOW/THE GIANT
Once billed as the son of Andre the Giant, the Big Show is the only person to ever hold the WCW, WWE, and ECW world titles.
33. BRITISH BULLDOGS
Perhaps the most popular tag team in the WWF during it's growth period of the 80's. Their new style mixed power (Davey Boy Smith) and agility (Dynamite Kid). WWF tag team champions.
34. ABDULLAH THE BUTCHER
The Madman from Sudan defied all logic in the ring. Perhaps the all-time greatest blader and the father of the "foreign objects".
35. TED DIBIASE
"The Million Dollar Man" worked as one of, if not THE top heel in WWF during the mid to late 80s. Heavily involved in ending Hulk Hogan's first title reign when on Saturday Night's Main Event on NBC, he payed off the referee to tie his twin up in the back, to do a quick count, and declare Andre the Giant heavyweight champion.
36. THE KOLOFFS/CRUSHER KRUSHEV
NWA's russian heel faction main evented cards in the mid 80s feuding with the likes of Dusty Rhodes and Magnum T.A. Ivan a one time World Champion. Nikita a U.S. Champion.
37. THE FABULOUS FREEBIRDS
Gained popularity in AWA and WCCW, the men from Badstreet U.S.A. also had a run in NWA winning the tag titles. Invented the "Freebird Rule" where any of the 3 members of the group could defend the belts (also used by the Koloffs, Demolition, The Dudleys, and more).
38. JIM ROSS
How can an announcer be on this list? Jim Ross is more than an announcer... he handles a lot of behind-the-scenes duties and is the benchmark to which other announcers are measured.
WWF's answer to The Road Warriors. Unexpectedly went from Road Warrior rip-offs to hugely popular WWF tag team champions.
40. GREG "THE HAMMER" VALENTINE
WWF Intercontinental and tag team champion. Argument whether he or Ric Flair invented the infamous "face flop".
41. TITO SANTANA
One of the greatest WWF Intercontinental Champions of all time. Legendary feud with Greg Valentine. We'd like to forget about the "Matador" gimmick thank you.
42. FABULOUS MOOLAH
Held the WWF women's title for 20 years.
43. ROCK-N-ROLL EXPRESS
Ricky Morton and Robert Gibson - arguably the most popular tag team of the 80s. Multiple time tag team champions. Had girls yelling and crying like they were at a rock concert.
44. BARRY WINDHAM
Has won several various title in NWA and WWF. Member of The Four Horseman. Became famous as a member of the U.S. Express (with Mike Rotundo), "saving" the WWE from the evil clutches of the Iron Sheik and Nikolai Volkoff.
45. HONKEY TONK MAN
I can't believe he made this list, but he does own the all-time longest Intercontinental Title reign in WWE history. Unfortunately, also owns the quickest title loss in a "squash" match to The Ultimate Warrior.
46. BIG VAN VADER
WCW and WWE world champion
47. ARN ANDERSON
The enforcer of "The Four Horsemen", multiple time world tag team and NWA TV champion. WWE booker. Wrestling legend.
48. KEVIN SULLIVAN
The evil "Taskmaster" was a top heel everywhere he went.
49. MEAN GENE OKERLAND
A fixture on WWF tv for years and later in WCW, Mean Gene was THE interviewer, at a level that has not been duplicated.
50. Rey Mysterio Jr.
Greatest Cruiserweight of all time? With a run as WWE World Champion, I would say so.