WWE: The Most Influential Superstars Ever, Part II
So after writing my recent look back at the most influential performers in pro wrestling history, I once again got a ton of great feedback from readers.
Like my last series on biggest busts, people also reminded me of a number of performers who I missed out on mentioning.
So, in today's installment, I will give love to some more of the people who influenced the great sport of pro wrestling and how, exactly, they influenced the game.
Enjoy, and as always, leave feedback!
Andre the Giant
INFLUENCE: The First Great Big Man/International Star
Somehow I compiled a list of the most influential performers in the history of pro wrestling and, as countless commentators informed me, I somehow managed to forget about Andre the Giant.
Andre the Giant was arguably the biggest star in the formative years of WWE, both in terms of size and of impact; he was 7'4" and stayed at around 500 pounds for whole career, and he was also responsible for arguably the most iconic moment in early WWE history (Hogan vs. Andre at WrestleMania III).
Andre was never the best in-ring performer, nor did he cut the best promos, but his immense size created a mystique and an aura that has really never been matched. He went undefeated for over 15 years on WWE TV (though he did lose here and there off-camera), and his main claim to fame was that he never lost a battle royal.
Truly, Andre was pretty much the best-booked big man in WWE history, with one exception: he never was the world champion. OK, well, technically he did win the WWE title in a schmoz ending on The Main Event (which, with a 15.2 rating, is still the highest rated wrestling show ever), but he gave it away right afterwards and was stripped of the belt.
Andre deserved a title run, and whoever beat him deserved the honor of knocking off the biggest star in the history of the sport (which Hogan sort of did anyway).
In addition, Andre was the only pro wrestler to have a major role in an actual quality movie, with a wonderfully charming turn as Fezzik in The Princess Bride (where he infamously almost killed Mandy Patinkin and Cary Elwes when they tried to keep up with his drinking).
Oh yeah, and, speaking of drinking: check out this article on Andre's legendary boozing habits. Probably the greatest drinker of all time too....I can't even fathom drinking 100 beers in one sitting.
The Fabulous Moolah
INFLUENCE: Women's Wrestling
I realized that I also didn't give any love to the ladies in my last installment, and since women's wrestling has always been a part of pro wrestling (despite being de-emphasized quite a bit) I felt the need to discuss the lady who literally put women's wrestling on the map: The Fabulous Moolah.
Moolah actually got her start in the 1950's as a valet for the legendary "Nature Boy" Buddy Rogers before winning the Women's Championship in 1956. During her reign, she became the first woman to wrestle at Madison Square Garden (in 1972) and was instrumental in lifting the ban on women's wrestling in New York State.
Moolah finally dropped the title to Wendi Richter in 1984, after being credited with a 28-year title reign (though she did lose the belt a few times outside of WWE). She would win a few more titles while in WWE, including infamously defeating Richter in "The Original Screwjob," before mostly retiring in the early 1990's.
Famously, Moolah would come out of retirement and win one last women's title in 1999, at the age of 76. She would remain involved with WWE storylines (mostly in comedy skits with her long-time friend Mae Young) until passing away in 2007.
Ernie Roth & Freddie Blassie
In my last installment, I also forgot to give love to managers.
I did a lot of thinking, and ultimately I couldn't decide who was the most influential manager: "The Grand Wizard" Ernie Roth and "Classy" Freddie Blassie. So I decided to let them share the honor.
Both guys were supremely talented at gaining the ire of fans (including coming to close inciting real riots in arenas), and both managed some of the most important heels of the 20th century.
Roth was known for his flamboyant style of dress, as well as for managing two of the first (and most influential) heel champions in WWWF/WWE history in Stan Stasiak and "Superstar" Billy Graham. Blassie, who was also a successful wrestler, became legendary for his insults (specifically "pencil-neck geeks").
Both guys were masters of getting heat, and without them, the careers of some of their charges never would've reached the heights they did.
For that, both of these men deserve a nod as the most influential managers in pro wrestling history.
INFLUENCE: The Rise of Japanese Wrestling
One of the other issues that was pointed out to me in my last installment was that my list tended to be a bit USA-centric. So I feel like I need to honor a few of the foreign pioneers.
Antonio Inoki seems as worthy as anyone.
Inoki was one of the pioneers of Japanese wrestling, and one of the most influential on a worldwide scale. In addition to what he accomplished in Japan, which included the founding of New Japan Pro Wrestling (arguably the biggest promotions in Japan to this day), he also became famous for two landmark moments against American talent.
First, Inoki defeated Bob Backlund for the WWE championship in 1979 (though WWE does not recognize this title change), though Backlund won it back soon after.
Secondly, Inoki took on boxing champion Muhammad Ali in a 1976 contest (where Inoki famously kicked at Ali for 15 rounds in what may or may not have been a shoot match).
Inoki is no longer in charge of NJPW, but still holds a great amount of influence in Japan; he is also the first-ever pro wrestler to become an elected official in any country.
INFLUENCE: In-Ring Perfection
If I'm going to include influential performers from overseas, I have to include something on the late, great Mitsuharu Misawa.
If we're going by in-ring skills and awards won, Misawa truly has no peer in professional wrestling.
Let's check out the accolades:
- Misawa had 24 5-star matches as rated by Dave Meltzer (there have only been 65 total matches rated 5 stars). Ric Flair was in six 5-star matches; Shawn Michaels was in two; Bret Hart was in two; CM Punk has been in two. So, if you add up the 5-star matches by four of the best in-ring performers in WWE history, Misawa doubles their total by himself.
- Misawa won Wrestling Observer's Wrestler of the Year award three times, and won Match of the Year 5 times.
- Misawa is an eight-time world champion and an 11-time tag team champion.
If anything says consistent dominance, it is the career of Mitsuharu Misawa.
Sadly, Misawa passed away in the ring in 2009, but his considerable legacy lives on.
INFLUENCE: The Rise of Mexican Wrestling
I think the fact that one of the pictures I found of El Santo is of him looking like a comic book superhero says a lot about the man also known as Rodolfo Guzmán Huerta, better known to his fans as El Santo. The Saint.
El Santo was one of the most revered, iconic figures in the history of Mexican wrestler, truly a pioneer of Lucha Libre and the wearing of masks in the ring. He won 12 championships in his career and won every Hair/Mask (aka "Lucha de Apuestas") match he was ever involved in (over 30 by my count), which is especially important given how important (almost sacred) a mask is in Mexican wrestling.
In a culture where wrestlers are treated almost as heroic figures, El Santo's career stood out as much as anyone's ever has. He became the subject of numerous comic books and starred in over 50 movies. Many of his children (most famously El Hijo del Santo) became pro wrestlers as well.
When El Santo passed away in 1984, he was buried in his silver mask.
The Road Warriors
INFLUENCE: Tag Team Wrestling
The Road Warriors (aka The Legion of Doom) were not the very first tag team in the history of professional wrestling, not by a long shot.
They may have been the first outstanding and most famous tag team in wrestling history, though.
For 20 years, Joe "Animal" Laurinaitis and Mike "Hawk" Hegstrand were the standard for tag team competition, winning titles in America, Japan, and in every company that they performed for.
They spawned countless imitators (most notably Demolition in WWE) but could never fully be replicated.
Their smash-mouth style and their charisma resonated with fans all over the world due to their powerful, violent nature. They were stars as both faces and heels, and were a huge influence in the tag team wrestling boom in the 1980's and 1990's.
Sadly, Hawk passed away in 2003, though Animal has continued to perform (even winning another tag title as part of a new L.O.D. with Heidenreich, who got the spikes and everything).
His brother, John, has most recently been an authority figure with WWE, and his son, James, is a star linebacker with the St. Louis Rams in the NFL.
INFLUENCE: Sex Appeal
While performers like Sunny and Sable may have pushed the envelope and become slightly more famous for the sexuality, no eye candy valet in professional wrestling history would ever be as influential as Miss Elizabeth.
Now, Miss Elizabeth was never overtly sexual, and never really stripped off any clothing in WWE (save for the time at Summerslam 1988 where she famously took off her pants to distract DiBiase and Andre), but she had the wholesome, girl-next-door vibe that people fell in love with.
Not only did the fans fall for her, but wrestlers began to also; one of the most famous feuds in WWE history came as a result of Randy Savage being jealous of Hogan's budding relationship (of sorts) with Elizabeth, leading to their match at Wrestlemania V.
Savage and Elizabeth would eventually make up, reuniting at Wrestlemania VII, and Savage would ultimately feud with Jake "The Snake" Roberts, who had begun tormenting her; Elizabeth would famously be saved by The Undertaker, who turned face for the first time in his career as a result.
Elizabeth would be involved in a few more angles (including being a pawn in the Savage-Flair feud at Wrestlemania VIII) before leaving for WCW. She and Savage split up in real life soon afterwards, leading to her becoming involved with Lex Luger before, tragically, dying in 2003.
Elizabeth's role in establishing women's roles in wrestling (for better or for worse) cannot be overstated. She was truly a revolutionary.
INFLUENCE: Rising From the Tag Team Ranks, The First Ambiguous Heel
Outside of Andre the Giant, the most common performer that people asked me about was Bret Hart.
I have mixed feelings about Bret Hart truly being an influential performer; naturally, he was one of the greatest in-ring performers in the history of pro wrestling, though he more perfected and polished technical ability rather than influenced it.
I also heard about him being the first smaller guy to make it big, but other guys before him were not chiseled or huge (i.e. Pedro Morales, Bruno Sammartino) and still won championships.
So I got to thinking. In what way was Hart influential? He certainly wasn't part of the first great tag team, though the Hart Foundation was excellent.
But then it hit me: how many other guys before Bret Hart came from the tag division and made it to the main event?
I couldn't think of anyone.
Bret Hart, through the power of hard work and perseverance, rose from the ranks of tag team wrestling and began a journey that led to six world championships (four in WWE, two in WCW) and a reputation for being arguably the best ever in the ring.
There's also something else about Hart worth mentioning: his heel turn in 1997 was fairly revolutionary, if only for the fact that he became arguably the first heel who wasn't...well, he wasn't fully a heel.
How many other guys were heels in one place (the US) and faces in another (Canada, Europe)? I can't think of any. Truly, Steve Austin gets the credit for being one of the first ambiguously aligned performers in the history of pro wrestling, but if Bret Hart hadn't left after Montreal then he might have beaten him to it.