10 Most Revolutionary Figures in Pro Wrestling History
The history of professional wrestling is littered with outstanding characters, larger-than-life Superstars and notorious personas. It is also full of influential men and women who have left unquestionable marks on the sport.
But few can say they revolutionized the entertainment medium.
Those who can have altered the sport for the better and have had a great effect on its past, present and future.
Whether it was breaking the color barrier, redefining what a woman in wrestling was capable of or presenting a new way to enjoy sports entertainment, these giants of the industry are responsible for the million-dollar industry fans are so passionate about today.
These are the 10 most revolutionary figures in pro wrestling history.
10. The Rock
The Rock was a gigantic star for World Wrestling Entertainment during the Attitude Era and a few years afterward. In 2011, he returned to WWE to great fanfare and helped make WrestleMania 28 the most successful pay-per-view in the company's long and illustrious history.
But he does not make this list for his contributions as an in-ring competitor. No, he makes this list because of what he did for the industry outside of its confines.
Since 2002, The Rock has embarked on a career in Hollywood that has seen him become one of the biggest movie stars on the planet. He has resurrected several film franchises and starred in a number of action flicks.
His success as an actor and his history as a pro wrestler have painted the business in a different light than it was just a decade ago.
His return to the business in recent years allowed WWE to use his stardom to attract viewers and pay-per-view buyrates. WrestleManias 27 and 28 were excellent examples of his drawing power.
The Rock is a revolutionary figure in sports entertainment because he succeeded where so many other wrestlers, past and present, have failed. He went on to achieve enormous success outside the ring, and proved that, with hard work and determination, others can as well.
Debuting for World Wrestling Entertainment in the summer of 1995, Sunny (real name Tammy Lynn Sytch) quickly became a new breed of female sports-entertainment performer.
She was beautiful, could talk and had a personality that transcended that of a traditional valet.
In 1996, she was recognized as the most downloaded woman on the Internet, according to WWE.com.
Most importantly, she was the prototype for what would become known as WWE Divas. She was strong, sexy and powerful. She excelled in a number of different roles, including manager and television host. At the height of her popularity, she was as popular as any of the top stars in the WWE.
She was the first female performer to be merchandised and marketed on a large scale by Vince McMahon's promotion.
The one thing she did not do that today's Divas do is wrestle. When she starred, however, women's wrestling was not prevalent. It would not be until 2001—with the likes of Lita, Trish Stratus and Molly Holly leading the way—that the company began to focus on the in-ring work of its talented women.
Those women, and every other one who has come after them, have built upon the groundwork that Sunny laid. Without the impact she had on WWE in the mid-'90s, there is no telling what the state of women in wrestling would be in 2013.
8. Bret Hart
The 1992 departure of Hulk Hogan and The Ultimate Warrior from World Wrestling Entertainment, coupled with a steroid scandal that was beginning to damage affect the company, forced McMahon to take his wrestling empire in a new direction.
He released several of the larger, more jacked Superstars from their contracts and put a focus on smaller, more wrestling-efficient performers. Ric Flair had done an admirable job as champion, but it was clear that he was on his way back to WCW.
Enter Bret Hart.
In 1991, he earned the reputation as one of the best in-ring workers in the sport. After years spent as a highly talented tag team star, Hart delivered an outstanding performance against Mr. Perfect at SummerSlam. He would capture the Intercontinental Championship in that match, and an excellent subsequent showing against Roddy Piper and the British Bulldog earned him McMahon's trust.
On October 12, 1992, Hart defied all odds by defeating Flair and capturing the top prize in World Wrestling Entertainment.
His WWE title victory was a win for the smaller stars in the promotion—those workers who had long delivered the best matches of the night but hardly saw any career advancement. Hart was their champion and the people's champion.
He represented the company as a champion should and carried the title with grace and respect, as the son of a beloved wrestler and promoter should.
Hart's title reign and the success he had as champion laid the groundwork for smaller Superstars such as Steve Austin, Chris Benoit, Eddie Guerrero, CM Punk, Daniel Bryan and, most notably, professional and personal rival Shawn Michaels.
As champion, he put the focus on in-ring product and proved that wrestlers could carry McMahon's promotion, too.
He revolutionized what a champion in World Wrestling Entertainment could be and provided a glimmer of hope for the talented wrestlers who had yet to reach that level of stardom and success.
7. Ted Turner
Per WWE's DVD release The Rise and Fall of WCW, Ted Turner was a fan of professional wrestling and the audience it brought to his networks. For those reasons, not to mention the fact that it was relatively inexpensive to broadcast, he added Jim Crocket Promotions to his superstation TBS channel.
The channel was a national one and introduced the promotion and its stars, including Ric Flair, Dusty Rhodes, Arn Anderson, Tully Blanchard, Magnum TA and the Road Warriors, into living rooms across the country.
Fans could tune in every Saturday night at 6:05 p.m. to see the stars of the National Wrestling Alliance do battle and follow their storylines, even if they did not live in that specific territory and could not regularly frequent the live events.
In 1988, Turner expressed his desire to keep wrestling on his network by purchasing Jim Crockett Promotions and branding it World Championship Wrestling.
In 1995, he gave WCW President Eric Bischoff two hours every Monday night to compete with Vince McMahon and Monday Night Raw, according to the 2004 WWE Home Video production The Monday Night Wars. The show that resulted, WCW Nitro, would ignite a Monday night war with WWE that would lead to unprecedented success for the promotion.
For 83 weeks, WCW dominated the ratings war with WWE and had them on the brink of defeat.
Turner deserves a great deal of recognition for not only purchasing WCW and pumping a large sum of money into it over the years in an effort to help it succeed but also for giving Crockett and the NWA a national platform to perform on.
A lot of extremely talented individuals were able to gain exposure outside of Atlanta and the Carolinas and earn reputations for themselves thanks to Turner's dedication to pro wrestling.
He revolutionized how the sport reached a larger audience and also presented McMahon's WWE with a legitimate competitor, leading to the most fun and enjoyable period in wrestling history.
6. Stone Cold Steve Austin
Rising to the top of the industry in the late 1990s, "Stone Cold" Steve Austin broke the mold of the prototypical babyface.
He did not demand that his fans say their prayers or take their vitamins. Instead, he encouraged them to drink beer and chant "hell yeah" when they heard something they liked. He raged against the machine, rebelled against authority and greeted friends and enemies alike with a flip of the middle finger.
He was a character unlike any the wrestling business had seen to that point, and the fact that he was a babyface only added to his uniqueness.
Austin was the first Superstar to introduce the "shades of grey" into World Wrestling Entertainment. Based on his success, it became cool for guys like The Rock and Triple H to come up with edgy catchphrases that captured the imaginations of the audience.
He stood up to a corrupt authority figure in the evil Mr. McMahon and fought the good fight. Fans could relate to him and his plight, which made him that much more popular.
His Austin 3:16 catchphrase and T-shirt became pop-culture phenomenons.
He transcended the industry and, as a result, made it cool to be a wrestling fan after five years of less-than-stellar product.
Without Austin and the cast of interesting and entertaining characters he led during the Attitude Era, there may not have been a WWE for fans to tune into today.
5. Bill Watts
WWE Hall of Famer "Cowboy" Bill Watts does not get enough credit for the way he revolutionized pro wrestling from a race standpoint.
Regardless of whatever personal opinions he may have on the subject, Watts had a track record of pushing African-American wrestlers to positions on the card they had never been in before.
The 2012 publication The King of New Orleans: How the Junkyard Dog Became Professional Wrestling's First Black Superstar, written by Greg Klein, details how he took a young performer named Sylvester Ritter, gave him the name Junkyard Dog and pushed him to the main event. The charismatic star captivated the fans in Louisiana and became one of the most popular sports entertainers of his generation.
As the booker in World Championship Wrestling, Watts was responsible for making former Florida State University football star Ron Simmons into the first African-American world heavyweight champion.
As the owner of the aforementioned Mid South promotion, he also touted wrestling's first African-American booker in WWE Hall of Famer and former Kansas City Chiefs and San Diego Chargers star Ernie "Big Cat" Ladd.
As a wrestler-turned-promoter and, more importantly, as a businessman, Watts recognized talent when he saw it. When it came to pushing stars, he saw past color and focused on making money and entertaining audiences.
4. Eric Bischoff
Like him or hate him, and there are a lot of people who hate him, Eric Bischoff led Ted Turner's World Championship Wrestling to heights it had never seen before. In the process, he ignited a Monday night war that would see the sports-entertainment business reach its largest audience ever.
When he took over WCW, the company had never turned a profit. Within months, he had it in the black and making money thanks to his ability to sign marquee talent.
In 1994, he shook the wrestling industry to its core by signing free agent Hulk Hogan. He would follow up by luring "Macho Man" Randy Savage away from WWE. Just under two years later, he added Kevin Nash and Scott Hall to his growing roster of established stars.
He adopted a successful Japanese gimmick for an American audience and called it the New World Order. He would ride the NWO to unprecedented success as he and WCW whooped Vince McMahon's WWE for 83 consecutive Monday nights.
Ultimately, a mixture of Bischoff's ego, mismanagement within the company and talent with too much power led to the downfall of WCW. But to ignore how revolutionary he was as the man to stand up to the highly successful McMahon and his promotion would be a disservice to the industry.
3. Hulk Hogan
During his Hall of Fame career, Hulk Hogan revolutionized two wrestling empires and helped them each reach heights they had never seen before.
In 1984, he captured the WWE Championship from the Iron Sheik and set off on a nine-year journey that saw him lead the promotion as its star and most recognizable face. He was a mainstream media star, hosting Saturday Night Live alongside Mr. T and appearing in films such as Rocky III.
Hulkamania swept the country and made the Floridian the biggest star in professional wrestling.
He and WWE rode a wave of momentum into the early 1990s, but it became clear quickly that Hogan and Hulkamania were becoming a passing fad.
By 1993, McMahon and WWE parted ways with the pop-culture icon in favor of younger, fresher stars.
Bischoff capitalized on McMahon's mistake and made an offer to Hogan for the legend to join Ted Turner's World Championship Wrestling. Hogan accepted but had trouble adapting to the largely southern crowd, which had a fierce loyalty to Ric Flair and the other longtime stars of the promotion. Hulkamania didn't fly with that audience, and by 1996, it was determined that the Hulk Hogan character needed to head in a drastically different direction.
Hogan agreed to a heel turn and instantly became the most hated wrestler in the business. As the leader of the New World Order and by adopting the moniker of "Hollywood" Hogan, he was the centerpiece of WCW during its greatest period of growth and success.
He and his ego would also become one of the main reasons that the promotion failed.
For all of the negativity that has surrounded him and his political power plays throughout his career, arguing against Hogan's status as one of wrestling's most revolutionary and greatest performers is ludicrous.
2. Gorgeous George
Today, fans in hundreds of countries have access to professional wrestling via television broadcasts. It is nothing to turn on the flat screen and see the titans of sports entertainment doing battle on Raw, SmackDown, Main Event, Impact Wrestling, Ring of Honor or other regional programming.
The Superstars who ply their trade on television today owe a lot to WWE Hall of Famer Gorgeous George.
George was a wrestler at a time when television was being introduced to society. Strutting to the ring in a grand robe with his curly blond hair combed perfectly, he was a consummate performer whose flamboyance and pre-match antics captivated both live and viewing audiences.
He was one of the first professional wrestlers to embrace the showmanship and entertainment aspect of the sport and was almost single-handedly responsible for the success of both professional wrestling broadcasts as well as the sales of televisions.
Like Hulk Hogan, Steve Austin and The Rock who came decades after him, he made wrestling destination programming and helped television become an alternative entertainment form. No longer did fans have to venture to the arenas to see the larger-than-life star. They could enjoy his theatrics from the comfort of their own homes.
Muhammad Ali, the greatest boxer to ever grace a ring, has credited George for inspiring him to introduce a loud, obnoxious trash-talking style to his persona.
Every wrestler, from Ric Flair to Hulk Hogan to John Cena, owes a great deal of gratitude to George for being the first wrestler on a grand scale to showcase the traits that would make sports entertainment the beloved art form it is today.
The television industry would probably do well to show some gratitude to the master of crowd manipulation as well. After all, who knows how quickly televisions would have caught on with the public without him?
1. Vince McMahon
If Vince McMahon isn't a revolutionary figure in professional wrestling history, no one is.
After taking control of his father's promotion, he set out to forever change the sport. Recognizing that there was great potential to take the wrestling business from a territorial level to a national level, he stepped on the feet of promoters across the country and did so without remorse.
To be fair, he did offer to buy them out, so anyone who did not accept and slowly went out of business has only themselves to blame.
McMahon expanded his company and found great success by marketing and merchandising his larger-than-life Superstars.
He had a few rough patches, including a steroid scandal that placed him on trial, but he seemingly always managed to escape unharmed.
On the receiving end of a monumental beatdown by WCW in the middle of the Monday night war, he listened to his talent and adjusted his programming to better fit his audience. He took World Wrestling Entertainment in a new, edgier direction and became an on-air character that would help the company surge to the lead over the Eric Bischoff-led competition.
McMahon and WWE would never look back.
His most important contribution came in the creation of WrestleMania, a major entertainment spectacular that fused professional wrestling with celebrities and the glitz and glamour of Hollywood. The event took the sport out of dark and smoky arenas and placed it in sports domes packed with tens of thousands of fans.
The visionary promoter understood that the business had the potential to be bigger than it was and worked harder than everyone else to make it that way.