The 5 Best Game-Changers in Wrestling History
There are innovators, there are standard bearers, but only a select few in the history of professional wrestling deserve to be called the game-changers—the men and women without whom the industry might be unrecognizable, or not even exist.
Yep, these are the big time moments and players.
Ring the bell!
My initial list included two names who ultimately didn't make the cut of being called a game-changer, but remain influential innovators:
"Superstar" Billy Graham
The contributions of the man of the hour, the one with the power, too sweet to be sour, resonate to this day. He brought a new intensity and panache to promos, and—no offense to John Cena—but Graham's beefcake image became the prototype for the WWE wrestler. Dusty Rhodes learned from him, Jesse the Body and the Hulkster acknowledge they aped him and, for a time, the WWE wanted all their top stars in his image. Nonetheless, these are innovations in style and presentation, not a sea change of industry thought.
Few people in the wrestling industry deserved to be called genius, and Paul Heyman is one of them. His passion for the business was real, and, with no connections, used his teenaged wits to break into it, from selling phtographs to PWI, to being "Classy" Freddie Blassie's driver (despite not having a driver's license). Heyman Hustle, indeed!
When Heyman was on the Smackdown writing team, it was some of the consistently best wrestling on television. He had an exceptional roster of talent to work with, and his effective booking methods of accentuate the strengths and hide the weaknesses made everyone look good while developing the performers' confidence. Best yet, someone else was handling payroll.
As a locker room leader, he had guys in ECW willing to work for free just to keep the company afloat because his passion was that infectious. Unfortunately, Heyman would later be criticized for looking out for his own interests during that time. As innovative and inspirational as ECW was, and though many great wrestlers came from it, I couldn't justify how it fundamentally altered the industry, especially when other precedents were in place.
No. 5: The Leap
As a bodybuilder, his chiseled form led to Mr. Hawaii and other titles. He'd calloused his feet and earned his agility climbing palm trees and diving off cliffs into the Pacific. Intense eyes and the gravity of his presence allowed him to be a man of few words, though when he did speak, it was a with a gravel voice and spellbinding delivery all his own.
He wasn't the first Polynesian wrestler in the WWE. The Wild Samoans dominated the tag team division and embodied the warrior side of island culture. The charming Peter Maivia, genuinely elected by his people to be their High Chief, displayed the tribal tattoos—which took three days to complete using the traditional method of hammering a small needle into the flesh—for his part as ambassador of Samoan heritage. "Superfly" Jimmy Snuka shared the exotic looks of his brethren, but possessed a far off quality.
Oftentimes when Jim Ross is describing the qualities of a superstar, he mentions the intangibles, those innate individual qualities that can't be taught or defined. Whatever that aura, whatever that "it" factor was, Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka oozed it.
Captain Lou Albano was one of the most hated men the WWF. A former tag team champion, he became a manager of champions, leading the Wild Samoans to victory (and costing their defeat to Rocky Johnson and Tony Atlas). When Snuka arrived in the WWF alongside the Captain, wrestling shorthand dictated he was a heel, and audiences jeered the brooding islander. Yet, as he feuded with WWF Champion Bob Backlund throughout 1982, Snuka's athleticism and daring turned haters into believers, and the WWF was quick to capitalize on the Superfly's undeniable star power.
To start his face turn with a sympathetic push, the story was that Albano had cheated Snuka on his contract. Audience members hitherto not won over by Snuka's in-ring prowess empathized with his betrayal and cheered him on against all the evils Albano represented. He'd return the affection with his signature "I love you" gesture to the fans before taking every Superfly splash.
When addressing the fans, the Magnificent Muraco probably would have used a much different gesture. Packed arenas taunted "beach bum" at the smug Hawaii native. A master of ring psychology, Muraco owned whatever canvas he walked on, stalking his opponents, teasing them and the fans as though he was in on his own private joke. A hulking physique, confident and unflappable, Don Muraco truly was magnificent, and crowds went into a craze for anyone who could put him in his place.
Muraco's feuds with Pedro Morales and Jimmy Snuka went a long way to building the prestige of the WWE's second championship. Muraco, Tito Santana, Pat Patterson and Mr. Perfect made Hall of Fame careers battling for the Intercontinental Championship, as did the Honky Tonk Man, who is not yet inducted. Muraco and Honky were hated heel champions during the reigns of babyface heavyweight champions and held the responsibility of being the second draw.
While Backlund or Hogan headlined one card in one arena, Muraco or Honky were expected to headline another card in a different city and to draw comparable numbers. The fact that Muraco and Honky are as synonymous with the Intercontinental Championship as they are represents the faith that management of both eras had in the men as second champion.
The Muraco/Snuka saga began with a slight. At a TV taping, Snuka walked to the ring while the champ was doing an interview at ringside. Muraco lost his trademark cool and spent 1983 trying to make Snuka pay for the disrespect. By October, things had become so bitter, so personal, that the feud had reached the point of no return. It had to end. It had to be settled in one last defining match, whatever the result, whatever the cost.
The date was set: Oct., 17, 1983. The Magnificent Muraco vs. "Superfly" Jimmy Snuka for the Intercontinental Championship... inside a STEEL CAGE!
For wrestling fans, this was the must see event of the season. A young Mick Foley famously hitchhiked from the 'burbs into the Big Apple just to be at ringside. Future stars Tommy Dreamer, Sandman and Bully Ray all huddled in to a sold out Madison Square Garden. By evening's end, all four young men knew their adult lives would be inside a wrestling ring.
Fans watching the event at home, and later on Coliseum Home Video, were first treated to an all time great promo from the Magnificent one. Leaning against a locker room wall, Muraco was seated next to interviewer Vince McMahon. Solemn and intense, McMahon asked his question, then leaned in with the microphone, as though trying to feed Muraco the energy of his own will. Muraco's promo was Brandoesque in delivery: casual, improvisational and captivating. He'd resigned himself to the gallows, but maybe the outlaw had one last trick up his sleeve.
Gorilla Monsoon and Pat Patterson called the match from ringside. In the total package of a wrestling broadcast, the commentators contribute to the drama of the storytelling in tandem with the athletes. Monsoon understood that better than most, and his contribution to the living memory of what would transpire deserves mention.
The behemoths delivered the promised bloodletting, then shocked the arena with an absoluetly brilliant ending—one never seen before and never repeated. Snuka ran the ropes and delivered a headbutt, the force of which sent Muraco over the top rope. But he was near the cage door. In mid-flight, he yelled, "Open the door!" The referee obeyed, and Muraco tumbled to the floor to end the contest and retain his Intercontinental Championship.
Snuka was crestfallen. He had been so close to exacting revenge, maybe even to winning championship gold, and now it was over. He'd been outplayed...but not out done.
To the delight of the enraged crowd, Snuka dragged the weary Muraco back into the ring for more beating. Then he climbed to the ropes. In later interviews, he claimed he had no idea what he was going to do. He climbed to the top of the cage, and everyone in the Garden rose to their feet.
A year prior, Snuka had battled Bob Backlund in a cage encounter that Pro Wrestling Illustrated named match of the year. Snuka climbed the cage then, and made a fateful leap toward the prone Backlund, but the champ rolled out of the way at the last moment. Superfly crashed to the canvas, and Backlund escaped the cage to wild cheers.
But that was a wrestling match. This night was something altogether different. A reasonable man would acknowledge that Muraco probably could have rolled out of the way several times over by the time of the splash. He didn't.
As the bloodied Snuka held aloft his arms with the "I love you", the moment had transcended from sport into ritual.
In his review of The Wrestler (2008), Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly wrote of the final moment of the film, where the lead character makes his Superfly leap: "He's a man who has lost nearly everything. Yet he can still reach for grace: Standing up on the ropes, preparing to do his theatrical pounce, he looks triumphant, tearful and ready to enter heaven."
That was precisely what happened at Madison Square Garden. Professional wrestling had always been larger than life, but the agony that predicated the leap and the ecstasy of delivering the feud's final definitive moment ushered in a new mythology.
The legacy of that night was never about putting one's body through unnecessary risks, but about creating emotional connections that had dimensions richer than boo the bad and cheer the good. Randy Savage and Miss Elizabeth reuniting at WrestleMania 7 was such a moment. Shawn Michaels retiring Ric Flair was such a moment. Mick Foley's "cane Dewey" promo, Andre ripping off Hogan's shirt and crucifix in disgust and Daniel Bryan's elation following his Money in the Bank victory are all such moments.
Jimmy Snuka and Don Muraco were tremendous athletes who knew their craft well enough to deliver great theater. That combination of action and emotional resonance set the modern standard.
No. 4: The Fans
Despite being a cornerstone of American entertainment, professional wrestling was usually treated like a bastard cousin. Hundreds of thousands of people every year attended wrestling shows, even setting attendance records in venues such as Shea Stadium and Comiskey Park, but their successes were not shared by sportswriters who despised the entertainment, nor by entertainment reporters who didn't cover sports. The cloud of "what is it?" hung over the venture, and most in the media ignored it for most of the time. Since fans couldn't read about their favorite pastime in the newspapers, they made their own.
Some, such as the Wrestling Observer, were labeled dirt sheets because they covered the industry as an industry; that is to say, with disregard for kayfabe. In cynical terms, they were digging up the real dirt on the companies. Bret Hart recalled how many wrestlers were dismissive of the sheets, but once one appeared in the locker room, everyone would gather around it like a campfire. Whereas newspapers reporting the Vince McMahon steroid trial lured readers with the hook of either the fall of the wrestling czar or an anti-wrestling bias, Dave Meltzer simply reported the goings on because he had a built in audience and no ax to grind. For the Observer, the fact that the promoter was in federal court was the story; there was no need to sex it up.
Other publications, such as Pro Wrestling Illustrated, for the most part respected kayfabe as they documented feuds and profiled wrestlers' careers across every promotion. First published in 1979, PWI quickly became the industry standard, and its innovative feature ranking wrestlers and matches is now an institution in itself, lists which every up-and-coming wrestler wants to be on and every veteran doesn't want to be left off.
Many sports fans have a connection to the traditional ballgames because they played them in high school and are able to relive those days cheering for their children's teams or for professional athletes. Whether by school or by city, the language of sports is a jingoism to protect one's turf, crush the opponents and seize the enemy's flag. It is war for the masses, without the mess.
In much different eras, families would picnic on battlefield hillsides and watch actual, bloody war unfold. Those historical and today's sportive contests gave the everyday person a chance to own a victory in some aspect of life.
Sports purists do thrill at the competition, but the elephant in the room no one acknowledges— the real national pastime—is gambling. Whether it's college hoops, fantasy leagues or the NFL draft now getting as much press as the Super Bowl, Americans follow sports because they are literally invested in them. It wouldn't be war unless someone made a killing.
Professional wrestling always existed in its own space. No one grew up participating in intermural Starrcade or the Regional Rumble. If you brain someone with a steel chair, they'll go the hospital and you'll go to jail. During kayfabe, sports purists' main bone of contention was that pro wrestling wasn't real competition.
However, now that kayfabe is lifted, no one making an honest assessment of professional wrestling can say that the matches don't take a real toll on the athletes' bodies, the backstage environment isn't competitive and the on-camera entertainment doesn't compel as much or more as any sporting event. Behind the camera, for those who follow it, the competitive stakes aren't for a trophy, but for one's career.
During wrestling's golden age at the dawn of television, audiences were enraptured by the glamorous personalities and action of the new American artform.
By the late 1950's, however, football was becoming the televised sport du jour, eclipsing safe, old fashioned baseball as the country's favorite ballgame. Maybe it was the Santa Claus effect, audiences were clued in that pro wrestling wasn't "real" and no longer wanted to play along, but for whatever cultural shift, the wrestling world was pushed into the shadows.
(An aside: Political strategist and wrestling fan Lee Atwater famously remarked that pro wrestling was the only pure sport: everyone knew it was rigged, so they could just enjoy the show—as opposed to sports (and politics) that appear on the up-and-up but are full of cheaters.)
People who tuned into ballgames because they related to the experience didn't always know what to make of the Grimm world of professional wrestling. Shimmering robes, giants, dwarfs, Indian headdresses, barons and killers and wild Samoans...the experience just wasn't in everyone's wheelhouse.
For that same reason, other viewers flocked to it. Where else could one see those things every week? If the traditional ballgames played on their battlefields represented the story of war, wrestling in the squared circle embodied the struggle of individual wills, morality plays for a TV society.
Because professional wrestling existed in its own space, and because the rest of the culture ignored it, wrestling fans had a connection to their "team" that other sports couldn't engender. Football was shoved down everyone's throat, but wrestling fans were in on a secret, as though they were part of some shadow society living in plain view. When the culture didn't provide them with the dialogue they craved, they talked amongst themselves—they made newspapers, they traded tapes, they started websites. In sum, the fans took ownership of their pastime—because they loved it.
In doing so, a smarter fanbase and a more sophisticated audience emerged that the wrestling organizations had to raise their creative games to entertain. That give and take allowed things like an ECW, ROH or X-Division to flourish in response to those creative needs. Even on site, it was the fans in attendance who determined turning Austin face, the Rock heel, Hogan into an icon, and Zack Ryder into a breakout star; sometimes even effecting in the worst cases, such as the fans who contacted the authorities after Matt Hardy posted his bizarre suicide video. The fortunes of no other sport or entertainment are steered by such input.
In traditional ballgames, the leagues are the leagues and the fans are the fans. In professional wrestling, not only are the fans part of the show -- they're part of the industry.
No. 3: Andy Kaufman, Jerry Lawler
Madison Square Garden, May 17, 1963. The beloved Bruno Sammartino challenged the arrogant "Nature Boy" Buddy Rogers for the WWWF Heavyweight title, and 48 seconds after the bell sounded, he'd have it. Pandemonium ensued. In attendance, an enraptured 14-year-old from Great Neck, NY, dreamed of creating such moments.
Andy Kaufman's high school grade average was C-, and scoring a zero on the government's psychology test saved him from the horrors of Vietnam. Obsessed with Elvis Presley, fascinated by professional wrestling and writing and performing since an early age, Kaufman set out for a career in a show business that he was already beyond. He detested the staid conventions of comedy, from stand up to sitcoms.
Even though other minds of the era, such as Jim Henson, Robin Williams, Lorne Michaels, Lily Tomlin, Richard Pryor and Steve Martin were producing works that ran the gamut from irreverent to sophisticated to revolutionary, Kaufman wanted more. He wanted to elicit reactions, and the best way to do that was to go kayfabe. He didn't like being labeled a comedian, because he wasn't one. Comedians let their audiences in on the joke.
As wrestlers had to conform their lives to maintain their act, so too did Kaufman. He worked as a busboy at Jerry's Famous Deli to demonstrate that just because he was a big TV star, he was going to remain humble. He had convinced the producers of Taxi to ensure guest spots, and a dedicated parking space, to Tony Clifton, a lounge singer who Kaufman had first seen in 1969 and became a fan for life. The producers had no reason to doubt him, since they had seen Clifton perform at the Comedy Store on the same night they discovered Andy.
They obliged, unaware Clifton didn't exist. Undetectable in the guise, either Kaufman or his co-creator Bob Zmuda walked on to the Paramount sound stage to film Clifton's scenes, and by the end of the day was fired, forcibly removed by security as he cursed the producers, "You'll never work in Vegas again!"
Unfortunately for Kaufman, he was so convincing at kayfabe that people to this day wonder if his death at 35 to a rare form of lung cancer was just an elaborate hoax. Kaufman did pass away on May 16, 1984, and his wish to have "Classy" Freddie Blassie sit with his family at the funeral service was honored (their film My Breakfast with Blassie was released only two months prior).
Though he performed all manner of characters, Kaufman had great success immersing himself in heel roles. His logic was ahead of its time: If heels could elicit reactions in Madison Square Garden, why not also on the Merv Griffin Show? When a seemingly drunk Tony Clifton appeared on Dinah Shore's talk show and took offense to her questions, he poured a pan of eggs over the Emmy winner's head. The pretaped segment never aired, and is thought to have been destroyed.
Even Kaufman's own fans bore the brunt of his alienating heel antics. Audiences teased by the presence of a record player on stage assumed they'd be seeing the Mighty Mouse song that Kaufman had performed on the premiere episode of Saturday Night Live. Instead, he read them the Great Gatsby. Once the crowd was riled where he wanted them, he asked if they'd rather hear the record. They'd cheer, only to be disappointed upon hearing the recording...which was of Kaufman reading the Great Gatsby.
His most famous heel creation brought him closer to his goal of one day performing in the squared circle. Just as professional wrestling had started on the carnival circuit, traveling from town-to-town with shoot fighters and barkers promising to reward any man in the crowd if they could last X-amount-of-time in a fight, Kaufman would begin his journey in sports entertainment traveling from show to show, challenging any woman in the audience to wrestle him. He had the idea as early as 1972, when he first performed at the Improv, but never went beyond taunting.
By 1977, he was wrestling women as part of his stage act, and two years later, the World Inter-gender Wrestling Champion was defending his title on television. Buddy Rogers even served as his manager during a 1979 Saturday Night Live appearance. In 1981, he brought the act to a professional wrestling ring for the first time on the undercard of a Cobo Arena event in Detroit.
Needless to say, by the time Kaufman was ready to commit to the world of professional wrestling in 1982, audiences were ready to see a thrashing. Allegedly, he first brought the idea to Vince McMahon, Sr., the promoter behind all of those Madison Square Garden shows Kaufman had regularly been attending since first seeing Rogers and Sammartino all those years before. Uncertain how his Northeastern audiences would respond to the proposed story, McMahon's misgivings led him to pass on the project, but encouraged Kaufman to try contacting southern promotions, where it might play better. Providence shined on the lifelong Elvis fan, who would soon be fighting a King in Memphis.
Jerry Lawler and Jerry Jarrett promoted the Continental Wrestling Association into one of the most successful NWA territories. Lawler had a rapport with the fans and a vision for storytelling that created sold out shows, time and again. When Angelo Poffo's International Championship Wrestling ran competing shows in the territory, NWA be damned, the visceral animosity between the two groups was very real. When ICW folded in 1984, however, Lawler put his feelings aside, knowing it was good business to bring Poffo and his two sons, "Leaping" Lanny and Randy "Macho Man" Savage, to work for him—as though the legitimate bad blood between the two companies had finally boiled over into full scale invasion.
Not only had Lawler presaged an NWO-type storyline a decade before either New Japan or WCW, but Savage's performances there would catapult the Macho Man to super-stardom.
When Andy Kaufman appeared in CWA taunting women to wrestle, the King stormed to the ring, called Kaufman on his misogyny and challenged Kaufman to a fight instead, to the approving din of the Mid-South Coliseum. When Kaufman accepted the King's challenge on April 5, 1982, the brief match was punctuated by a piledriver that injured Kaufman's cervical vertebrae. Pandemonium ensued.
Like any self-respecting heel, Kaufman wore his neckbrace long after his neck was healed, forever immortalized when he and Lawler appeared on Late Night with David Letterman that June. Kaufman danced on the kayfabe line, saying he was only playing a bad guy wrestler, and that Lawler owed him an apology for taking it so seriously. Tensions escalated before the commercial break, and Lawler slapped Kaufman across the face, and out of his chair. Back from break, an infuriated Kaufman went on a curse-filled tirade and threw coffee on Lawler before running off the set.
The slap made headlines because jaded bon vivants who were certain wrestling was "fake" were suddenly wondering if that event was real. Before Jerry Springer and reality shows, physical violence on television actually meant something. The audible gasp heard from the studio audience was proof that one slap was more than enough. Any further action on Lawler's part would have been disconcerting. Had the event happened in the middle of the wrestling ring, it would not have had the national impact, because the ring would have provided context. But that same serious action, out of context on a lighthearted comedy show, shocked the world.
The genius of this incredibly kayfabe feud (which survives in the documentary I'm From Hollywood) was that it brought wrestling to reality. Just as he had proven himself to be a game-changer in the world of comedy, Kaufman showed that wrestling storylines no longer had to operate within a safe little TV world. He and Lawler provided the precedence for Steve Austin to air his grievances against WCW in an ECW promo. It set a precedence for the Matt Hardy-Edge-Lita dirty laundry to become a money feud, and for a CM Punk promo to light a fire under the wrestling industry.
Andy Kaufman was a provocateur whose personal relationships and career oftentimes suffered for his dedication to his craft. His feud with Jerry Lawler remains a lasting success because, for whatever other masks he wore, Andy Kaufman's love for professional wrestling was real.
No. 2: Vince and Linda McMahon, Hulk Hogan
No sooner had Vince McMahon, Sr., brought his namesake into the world of professional wrestling than he was trying to protect him from it. Vince, Jr., may have convinced his stepmother to dye his hair blond so he could emulate Dr. Jerry Graham, but Vince, Sr., put the kibosh on his son ever lacing up the boots. Undeterred, Vince remained on the periphery of his father's business into his adult life.
By 1969, though, with a wife and new baby boy to support, Vince took to the road as a traveling salesman so he could provide for them.
When the elder McMahon's ring announcer demanded a union rate, the promoter took advantage of a loophole that stated the rate wouldn't apply to family, and Vince McMahon's career in television began. Whether Senior would have invited his ambitious son into the business otherwise remains unknown.
If Vince had taken to promoting as naturally as he had taken to broadcasting, WrestleMania would have premiered a decade earlier. Instead, Vince and Linda spent the 1970's learning the trade through measured successes and resounding failures. In time, though, other promoters, such as Bob Arum and even Vince, Sr., he of proud Gaelic stock and not one for praise, all came to realize that Vince, Jr., had great instincts in need of an outlet.
According to Sex, Lies and Headlocks, Vince, Jr. and Arum generated incredible publicity for what turned out to be Evel Knievel's completely underwhelming jump across Snake River Canyon in 1974. Unsure he'd cross the divide, Knievel didn't commit to the jump and released his chute moments after his tires left the ramp.
Two years later, McMahon and Arum would again join forces to promote the Muhammad Ali/Antonio Inoki boxer versus wrestler debacle. Vince himself wrote the script for the match. Ali liked it, and it would have sent fans of both athletes home happy. Unfortunately, McMahon was not in attendance on fight night to reassure egos and diffuse situations, and the event spiraled into another high-profile bust.
For those things McMahon could control, however, he was making glacial-paced gains. In 1973, Maine was the one spot on Senior's map without a local promoter, and he gave his son the make or break opportunity to see if he could finally make something of himself in the wrestling world he so much wanted to join. Rather than reinvent the wheel, McMahon focused on what worked, and introduced new ideas to the old rasslers gradually, such as encouraging them to make use of the space by taking the fight to the floor, or even the parking lot, to add variety to the card.
By 1979, Vince and Linda were essentially renting-to-own the Cape Cod Coliseum, hosting and learning from all manner of acts, from hockey to the Harlem Globetrotters, all while Vince was still working on-air for the WWF, interviewing his father's star attractions, such as the "Incredible" Hulk Hogan.
He'd been calling himself "Hulk" to capitalize on the popular Incredible Hulk television series, and Vince, Sr., suggested the "Hogan" because he liked his wrestlers to have last names, and all the better one from the Emerald Isle. When the opportunity to film Rocky III rolled along, Senior wasn't convinced one thing had to do with the other and didn't want Hogan to participate. Like Vince, Jr., though, Hogan had learned to trust his instincts, and the once-in-a-lifetime gambit was too good to pass up, even if it meant leaving the WWF.
Hogan returned to the ring at the AWA, where promoter Verne Gagne, on the other hand, was keenly aware the kind of publicity a Sylvester Stallone film could generate for his territory. After all, Gagne himself had produced and starred in The Wrestler (1974), for exactly that purpose (Vince, Sr., and other members of the NWA board even made cameos).
Wrestling the incomparable Nick Bockwinkle and trading promos with the hated Bobby Heenan, Hogan's time in the AWA was a master class, but it was apparent to all that the man possessed a star quality that could not be taught—just exploited. Hogan said that during one match, all he did was turn to the crowd, and to his surprise, they erupted. He began to develop his character focusing on that kind of connection with the fans, and their frenzied adoration of him was unlike anything seen in the sport before—a kind of "mania".
Like Vince, Sr., Gagne underestimated Hogan's savvy, and when the top draw started inquiring about his cut of the merchandising profits, the relationship soured.
By the spring of 1983, Vince, Jr., knew Hogan was the man to lead his great campaign to make the WWF the premiere wrestling organization in the world, and he gambled everything he and Linda had to present Senior (and his partners Phil Zacko, Gorilla Monsoon and Arnold Skaaland) with an offer to purchase the promotion. Senior accepted—on the condition that if Vince and Linda missed a scheduled payment, the deal was off.
Under that Sword of Damocles, the couple went to work, gaining national exposure by packaging syndicated programming, as well as producing the innovative Tuesday Night Titans, which became the highest rated show on the fledgling USA Network. Whatever gentleman's agreement Senior had with the National Wrestling Alliance about not crossing over into each others territories, television had already brought the new WWF into their living rooms, and Vince, Jr., brazenly asserted that the promoters could sell their territories to him, or compete against him in their own backyards.
It's no understatement to say that Hulk Hogan also risked everything headlining those shows. If the WWF failed, at best he'd never wrestle in North America again, and at worst... blame it on kayfabe those death threats sounded so convincing.
In Hitman, Bret Hart recalled the moment Harley Race unexpectedly showed up in a WWF locker room and made a beeline for Hogan. Race is considered by his peers to be the most legitimately tough man to ever step inside a ring, and as the promoter of the historic St. Louis territory, he had everything to lose in McMahon's power play. Race slapped Hogan on the ribs, and when the champ turned and saw who it was, went ashen. Race laughed and embraced him, to a relieved locker room. Though Race had initially been vocal against McMahon, he saw the writing on the wall.
A chance meeting on a plane in 1984 between Cyndi Lauper and Lou Albano sparked music producer David Wolff to conceive of what would later be called the rock 'n wrestling connection. What began as an attempt to promote the singer's upcoming album mushroomed beyond all expectations into a phenomenon, giving the fledgling MTV its highest ratings when it broadcast three WWF specials. Now that Hulk Hogan and Roddy Piper were household names, and everyone from Andy Warhol to Danny DeVito wanted to be seen ringside at MSG, McMahon cannily parlayed the exposure into promoting a supercard for closed circuit television.
Once again, Vince and Linda gambled the house on a far off vision, shelling out $90,000 alone to the PR firm Bozell and Jacobs. The success of WrestleMania ensured that the business model of professional wrestling, and ultimately the future of entertainment, would hinge on pay-per-view. The territory lines had been dissolved, and now the field was open to any promoter who had the gumption to make a national presence. The WrestleMania Generation of WWE Superstars, led by Hogan and Piper, captured the imagination of kids worldwide, and established wrestling once again as a mainstream family entertainment option, where it remains.
Yet, for all of that progress, the yoke of kayfabe lingered, the last vestiges of wrestling's carnival roots. To protect their tricks, carnies talked in a kind of pig Latin, and "kayfabe" must have been some kind of bastardization to indicate a gag was "fake".
For every Bob Costas or Steve Allen who were happy to take part in the unique experience of WWF events, there was a John Stossel or Richard Belzer who treated the issue of "is it real or is it fake" as though they were breaking Watergate. And the Stossels and Belzers and every tough guy at the local watering hole soon learned how diligently The Boys protected the business. It had been ingrained in them. The seal was so tight that sons of wrestlers, guys like Ted DiBiase and Bret Hart, didn't even know what their fathers did was a work.
In his biography, Bobby Heenan recounted a humorous incident where heels and faces were gabbing in a hotel hallway. The elevator opened, and a couple not affiliated with the industry were standing there. Instantly, to protect the business, the wrestlers took to fighting!
If wrestling was ever going to be acknowledged with any measure of respect, kayfabe had to go. Whether or not Vince McMahon envisioned such a thing, the opportunity presented itself to him in the 1990's when a tax loophole favored entertainments instead of sporting events, which is what WWE had always been classified.
McMahon understood better than anyone that this seismic shift in thought and deed would be the Galilio moment of the wrestling industry. Nonetheless, he trusted his instincts, the context of his decision and its timing.
On Dec. 15, 1997, an exuberant McMahon looked into the camera and told the world, "We, in the WWF, think that you, the audience, are, quite frankly, tired of having your intelligence insulted."
Though it would take a number of years and various projects, including Wrestling with Shadows, Mick Foley's books, Beyond the Mat and Tough Enough, to absorb this new outlook into the public consciousness, perceptions have finally shifted where the culture is now acknowledging wrestlers for their one-of-a-kind craft.
No 1: Gorgeous George
Gorgeous George's impact on professional wrestling can be summed up with one simple phrase: Without him, there's no business.
When radio began, the airwaves were filled with variety shows that more or less resembled a vaudeville card. Eventually, though, audiences wanted more substantive fare, and tuned in when more sophisticated programming developed, such as the Jack Benny program, which was centered around the great comedian's personality quirks and how his coworkers responded to them—the first sitcom.
Television history begins the same way, with variety shows and also professional wrestling, firing the bulbs, as both were fairly inexpensive to produce. Again, like radio, the novelty of variety programs wore off as viewers found comfort revisiting the same characters each week on scripted shows.
Professional wrestling could have just as easily fell by the cultural wayside with all the other programs the networks made their money on before sending out to pasture. Now that wide audiences had been exposed to what wrestling was, Americans probably would have retired it as another turn of the century curiosity that was out of touch with the atomic age, like those vaudevillians who had been telling the same joke on stage for 20 years, but couldn't compete with the demands of a technology that necessitated new material every week.
Instead, to the tune of "Pomp and Circumstance", Gorgeous George flitted into American living rooms on Nov. 11, 1947, to ensure that professional wrestling was here to stay, and everything else would change. In his own words: "I don't know if I was made for television or if television was made for me."
Such was the power of the medium, even in its infancy, that more people knew who Gorgeous George was than knew who the President of the United State was. The Sensation of the Nation himself is much of the reason television survived it's infancy; people wanted to see him and were willing to buy the new devices to do it.
According to John Capouya's Gorgeous George, there were 180,000 TV sets in American homes the year George made his debut, but production had tripled only two years later. "Mad Dog" Vachon told Capouya wrestling was so wildly popular that when people went to purchase televisions, they were looking to "get themselves a 'wrestling set.'"
George Wagner began his career at 14 as a shoot fighter on the carnival circuit. Even Lou Thez, who despised gimmick acts that distracted from the actual wrestling, begrudgingly acknowledged that the Human Orchid had a sound amateur base. By the 1930's, he was already a decorated professional wrestler. An early innovation of his was when he married his first wife, Betty, inside a wrestling ring. It proved to be such a draw that they repeated the ceremony in multiple cities. Betty was the guiding light for most of George's career, and her mother even sewed his first fabulous robes.
The idea for the sumptuous robes, atomizer and the valet were sparked when George worked through Ohio in 1937 and befriended Springfield native Wilbur Finran, who had created a popular wrestling persona for himself named Lord Patrick Lansdowne as early as 1933.
Little remembered today, the welterweight was reportedly a gifted athlete whose ring work was as admired as his haughty antics were loathed. Claiming to be from the fictional House of Barrington, he would instruct local bands to play "God Save The King" as he made his entrance to the ring, had his valets spray the ring to disinfect it and would even anger the fans by taking his tea time mid-match.
By 1941, he'd devote most of his time to tending his lounges and supper clubs in Ohio and Florida, wrestling sporadically for the next decade, and trading in his lordship for a maharajah character. Diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease in 1951, he would succumb to the condition eight years later at age 54.
The path to becoming Gorgeous was an organic one for George and Betty. The dark-haired Nebraskan native just wasn't over, and times were lean for the young couple. Betty suggested he fight dirty, and at last, his career started gaining forward momentum. While performing in front of a particularly rough and tumble crowd, they noticed the audience was jeering the manner in which George carefully folded his ring robe, and character traits began to gel. When they looked to the Hollywood starlets of the day for ideas on how to be glamorous, Betty had the brainstorm to go bleach blond—one of the most profound decisions in wrestling history.
George grew his hair long so that he could curl his luscious locks. Gold-plated bobby-pins he called "Georgie Pins" were removed before the match and handed out to the fans as souvenirs, another innovation. Years down the road, those famous strands would be shaved off his head, introducing another new concept, the stipulation that the loser gets their head shaved.
Whereas Lord Patrick's monocled character was based on English class snobbery, giving the valets context, the Gorgeous one's attitude and Wagner's moxie to pull it off was based in pure American obnoxiousness. The Hollywood Beau Brummel had the ego to call the fans peasants, as the son of a house painter was all the while mocking the rich.
This powerful man with the effeminate (though not homophobic) airs towered above anything else in the arena or on television. Borrowing from Lord Patrick, he refused to touch anything in the ring, even the ref, until it had been sprayed with his home brew disinfectant, Chanel No. 10. In Gorgeous George's worldview, even the haute Chanel No. 5 had to be supersized ("Why be half-safe?") and used as a disinfectant, to boot.
After years of struggle, what George brought to the table that was wholly his own was the experience to know that words make gate. Resplendent robes and a famous head of hair were part of the total entertainment package, but Gorgeous George reinvented the industry because he could talk. "Keep your dirty hands off of me!" entered the vernacular as a result of George not wanting the ref to touch his hair.
As wrestling shows evolved, and grapplers suddenly found themselves doing ringside interviews, the Toast of the Coast had no problem being ready for his close up.
Capouya reports the advice George gave a 19-year-old Cassius Clay, after the Olympian watched him work: "You just gotta have a gimmick, polish your act. Boxing, wrestling—it's all a show. You gotta get the crowd to react. You saw that crowd out there: Most of 'em hated me and the rest of 'em wanted to kiss me. The most important thing is, they all paid their money, and the place was full... a lot of people will pay to see somebody shut your big mouth. So keep on bragging, keep on sassing, and always be outrageous."
Other non-wrestlers who directly cite Gorgeous George as an influence are James Brown, Bob Dylan and John Walters, though it would be interesting to see where the flamboyance and showmanship of rock, rap and pop would be today had the Beautiful Bicep not laced up the boots.
Descendants on his wrestling family tree are too numerous to list and would include most everyone. "Classy" Freddie Blassie was a first generation tribute who had the opportunity to wrestle his inspiration. Also in George's time, more than one crooked promoter advertised Gorgeous George and then had someone else play the role to bilk the public off the genuine Orchid's name.
Later in his career, George would innovate yet again when his second wife Cherie became the first female valet, opening the doors for entertainers such as Sunny, Trish Stratus and Stacy Keibler.
Among those who took on the Gorgeous George template and made innovations of their own:
Golden-haired "Superstar" Billy Graham added a Muscle Beach physique and contemporary flourishes such as wild sunglasses and tie-died gear. Both Jesse Ventura and Hulk Hogan credit him as the wrestler they patterned themselves after.
As George had done with Lord Patrick, "Macho Man" Randy Savage would borrow more than a little from the Gorgeous One, while at the same time carving a memorable legacy of his own. In direct tribute were the use of "Pomp and Circumstance" as entrance music, marrying his wife inside a wrestling ring and the introduction of his girlfriend/valet Stephanie Bellars to WCW audiences in 1998 under the name "Gorgeous George" to wit Bobby Heenan on commentary proclaimed, "He looks great!"
Upon Savage's WWF debut, he innovated a character dynamic. Unlike Sherri Martel or Missy Hyatt, Miss Elizabeth never heeled on the fans or interfered in the match. Even though Savage was hated by everyone else in the arena, she openly worried for him during his contests. Those actions, and the fact that Savage would berate her and hide behind her, led fans to react to Liz as a face while jeering the despised Macho. Though he would work as a face and heel multiple times during his WWE run, Elizabeth remained a face, even when she wasn't affiliated with the Madness.
Gorgeous George was the first wrestler to consistently use entrance music, but it wasn't until Sergeant Slaughter convinced Vince McMahon, Sr., to play the "Marines' Hymn" upon his entrance that the practice was first utilized in the WWE. "Rowdy" Roddy Piper, an accomplished bagpipe player since his youth, was often led to the ring by fellow pipers. The Freebirds went one step further than anybody when they recorded their own anthem, "Badstreet, USA", and sold it to the public. Today, WWE produces a large portion of the wrestlers' entrance music in house.
Unfortunately, Gorgeous George is also at the forefront of another trend in professional wrestling—wrestlers dying young. Destroyed by alcoholism, lost in his gimmick and broke due to a run of bad investments, Gorgeous George died at 49 years old. Fellow wrestlers passed the hat for an orchid hued casket. His hair was curled for the last big show, and he was laid to rest wearing one of his favorite wrestling robes.
The man who gave professional wrestling its identity left it with a cautionary tale.
Gorgeous George embodied it all.