Pro wrestling crawled out of smoke-filled arenas, grew wings and adapted before becoming the athletic, high-flying display it is today.
Many of the moves we see in wrestling rings, in WWE or otherwise, look nothing like what George Hackenschmidt was doing to his foes in the early 1900s. Lucha libre, inventive trailblazers and the fearless all molded the art form of wrestling into something far different.
There was no flight in early wrestling. Men ground each other into the mat in the industry's formative years. A wrestler might leave his feet just once during a match, but not voluntarily.
Unless an opponent was flinging you to the canvas, you dug yourself into the ground and grappled.
Then came a man who claims he stole his high-flying signature move from kangaroos. Then came Mexico's acrobats, Extreme Championship Wrestling and the Japanese cruiserweights. Over the years, the shift toward breathtaking flying moves has been a game of one-upmanship over the course of several generations.
It's a game that began as early as the late '20s.
Consider Gus Sonnenberg, Abe Coleman and Antonino Rocca, the Wright Brothers of the squared circle. They were among the first to incorporate a more aerial approach to the mat art.
Sonnenberg came to wrestling by way of football. When his NFL career ended, he headed for the ring in 1928.
While his peers relied on items taken from the Greco-Roman toolbox, the former halfback showed the world the flying tackle.
As David Shoemaker writes in The Squared Circle, "What Sonnenberg didn't have in technique, he made up in flair, integrating a repertoire of football-style moves into the wrestling playbook—the flying tackle, most notably, which wrestling brought off the mat and into the air. The crowds were dazzled by this new style and started coming to wrestling events in multitudes."
Not long after that, the dropkick became part of the in-ring action.
Coleman, known as the Hebrew Hercules, was a squat, wide-shouldered powerhouse who wrestled throughout the '30s. He is known now as the father of the dropkick, reportedly thanks to mimicking the animal kingdom.
Douglas Martin of The New York Times writes, "Coleman said he learned it from kangaroos on a 1930 trip to Australia."
Whether this was the actual genesis of the move or simply another case of a wrestling tall tale, Coleman did popularize the now-common maneuver. Famous Houston promoter Paul Boesch wrote in his biography, Hey, Boy! Where'd You Get Those Ears! (h/t Washington Post), "Coleman liked to leap up and put his feet in his opponent's face and did it frequently."
Rocca followed his lead and worked in new weapons of his own.
His career began in the '40s, and he soon became a popular babyface in the New York area. His move set included the dropkick, hurricanranas and the flying body press. While standard fare today, these were mystifying moves back then.
In this video of a match against Lou Thesz, one can see some of that aerial work on display. In an era built around headlocks and tie-ups, Rocca flipped Thesz over with a leg-scissors takedown.
It's offense like that led him to be dubbed, as the Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame and Museum points out, the "original high-flyer.'"
Billy "Dinty" Parks gave us the sunset flip, a now-common move that doesn't even seem worthy of being called high-flying with the kind of nutty things wrestlers do today. But when Parks began his career in 1947, the leaping move was novel, as the ground game still dominated.
Greg Oliver of Slam! Sports writes of Parks, "Though he may not have been the first to actually perform the Sunset Flip—rolling over an opponent and using his momentum to bring his foe into a pin position—Parks definitely gets credit for popularizing and naming the move after his business."
Decades later, other men were resisting gravity, redefining what a wrestling match looked like.
Inspiring Future Flyers
Throughout the '60s, '70s and '80s, Harley Race was one of wrestling's biggest names. The former NWA champ was an intimidating figure, a burly, bearded man with a sailor's tattoos and a bulldog's glare. He gave the wrestling world an added weapon, though not on purpose.
As Race details in King of the Ring: The Harley Race Story, he first hit his famous diving headbutt by accident. His opponent rolled out of the way while Race was still in the air. The resulting move, a headbutt delivered from a great height, became his signature.
Dynamite Kid would mirror Race's headbutt in the '80s and '90s. Chris Benoit followed Dynamite's lead, using it throughout his career in the '90s and '00s. Daniel Bryan has taken the move for himself today.
Perhaps no other single flight inspired more wrestlers than the one Jimmy Snuka took on Oct. 17, 1983.
In a Steel Cage match against Don Muraco, Snuka wowed the Madison Square Garden crowd by delivering his famous Superfly Splash from the top of the cage.
Wrestlers have long since looked to duplicate and top that thrilling moment.
Mick Foley, who wrote in Have a Nice Day: A Tale of Blood and Sweatsocks that he was in attendance for Snuka's splash onto Muraco and did a dive off his own off a cage onto The Rock. Eddie Guerrero leaped from the highest point of a cage in 2004.
Cody Rhodes hit a moonsault from the top of the cage in the very building Snuka performed that splash. That move is one of many that was born in Mexico.
The Lucha Libre Influence
As WWE.com notes, the moonsault is Mando Guerrero's invention. It's not surprising considering that Mando spent much of his career in Mexico, where high-flying is the norm.
In the 1930s, wrestling in Mexico began to form an identity of its own. Masks were more prevalent in lucha libre matches, as were cruiserweights who were faster and more agile than the powerhouses who dominated the ring in the U.S.
That led to quicker-paced matches and a shift toward more sky-grazing action.
The tope con giro, plancha suicida and salto mortal, all acrobatic dives, came from Mexican wrestling. Alvaro Melendez Tibanez, who wrestled as Spiderman and Black Man beginning in the mid '60s, is thought to be the first to utilize the salto mortal.
Heather Levi describes it in The World of Lucha Libre as a move where "the wrestler jumps, does a flip in midair and lands on his or her back."
Huracan Ramirez offered his own flip-centric weapon to the squared circle.
Daniel Garcia Arteaga took on the Huracan persona in the '50s. He donned a blue mask lined with white swirls that resembled jet trails. That was fitting, as he gave wrestling a move now essential in any high-flyer's playbook: the hurricanrana.
Ramirez is credited with creating this move, which saw him bound toward his foe, wrap his legs around his neck and roll him to the mat. Rey Mysterio, Ricochet and Sin Cara are among those who have adopted and tweaked it long after Ramirez's in-ring days have ended.
These were the kind of stunning moves luchadors were performing on a regular basis. The rest of the wrestling world eventually took notice.
In the early '90s, Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart were beginning to move up from the WWE midcard to the marquee. They were both extremely talented and popular performers but were considered by some to be too small to be top guys.
Their move set (Michaels' far more than Hart's) borrowed from the cruiserweights in Mexico who counteracted their lack of girth with aerial work.
Hart implemented the suicide dive into his repertoire. Michaels' matches saw him perform moonsaults and slingshot himself from the ropes. The Heartbreak Kid famously missed an Asai moonsault at WrestleMania XXIV, a move that was commonplace by then.
That maneuver is named after Yoshihiro Asai, better known as Ultimo Dragon.
Asai, a native of Nagoya, Japan, spent much of his early career in Mexico. He didn't just flourish in the fast-paced lucha libre style but began to add items to the aerialist's arsenal.
As John F. Molinaro writes for Slam! Sports, "Asai was an innovator in the sport, creating and popularizing such moves as the quebrada (the Lionsault) and the Asai moonsault."
He also utilized the Asai DDT, where he flipped over while still holding his foe's head in his arms, and modified Mando Guerrero's invention, adding a corkscrew element.
Asai would move from Mexico to WCW, WWE and Japan, inspiring future generations of wrestlers to contort their body in mid-flight. Mysterio was key in spreading the lucha libre style to America and beyond as well.
Mysterio began his career in Mexico in the early '90s, where he thrilled crowds with a variety of moonsaults, dives and twirling moves. When he took his act to WCW in 1996, fans who had never seen moves like the tope con giro were soon wowed.
That company soon began to complement its brawling behemoths with cruiserweights.
Juventud Guerrera, Psicosis, Ciclope and other luchadors made their way to the U.S., bringing along move sets that were far cries from the ground-based work their more muscle-bound peers leaned on. WCW's cruiserweight division also welcomed Ultimo Dragon, who spent much of his career in Mexico.
He shares a career path with one of the great innovators of high-flying: Tiger Mask.
Japan Amps Things Up
Wrestling wouldn't look the same today without Tiger Mask.
Satoru Sayama donned a mask and a persona plucked straight from a manga series and changed wrestling forever. Sayama's early career was in Mexico, as at first he was thought to be too small for stardom in Japan.
The lucha libre style allowed him to grow as a performer. By the time he went to New Japan Pro Wrestling in 1981, he was ready to hypnotize fans by way of in-ring flight.
WWE.com notes that he invented the Tiger Feint kick that Mysterio eventually adopted and made famous as the 619. Asai employed the Tiger Flip that Daniel Bryan has since borrowed, as well as the turning (or rounding) moonsault.
In this WWE match from 1982, you can see him continue to pull tricks out of his hat. From backflips to cartwheels, he does plenty to leave the crowd stunned and unsure of what they're seeing.
The Land of the Rising Sun later birthed new high-flyers. In the '90s, Japanese rings became a laboratory of sorts. Cruiserweight wrestlers built on the planchas and moonsaults from Mexico, coming up with new, more breathtaking high-flying moves.
Jushin Thunder Liger, much like Tiger Mask, was an in-ring artist who did much of his painting in the air. An anime character birthed his persona as well.
The TV series that begin in 1989 inspired his trademark splashy look. A cape flowing behind him, horns jutting out from his colorful mask and fangs sliding past the sides of his mouth, he certainly looked like he belonged in a cartoon. He moved like he belonged to that world as well.
He spun in the air to kick his foes and darted between the ropes at impressive speeds.
In addition to using existing high-flying moves like the moonsault and the Frog Splash (which Art Barr invented while working in Mexico), Liger composed his own.
Liger's innovation, the Shooting Star Press, is a stunning move that wouldn't have seemed possible in Sonnenberg's day. He leaped from the top turnbuckle, pushing his body backward, rotating, floating.
As one of the most popular cruiserweights in the golden age of that type of wrestler, Liger was highly influential. Watching his matches, one can see where today's mat workers borrowed from him with the Shooting Star Press and beyond.
And if 2 Cold Scorpio's 450 Splash wasn't dangerous enough, Hayabusa took the front flip and added a corkscrew element, dubbing it the "Phoenix Splash."
Japan would see other innovators, later on, including the man who wowed with the Shirunai and Shirunai Kai: Naomichi Marufuji. It would be ECW and the indys, though, that would take the trailblazing baton.
Taking it Further
ECW became known for many things: its irreverence, crashes through tables and the great risks the performers in that company would take to make an impression.
It's that last element that kept high-flying's evolution moving forward.
Rob Van Dam brought kickboxing into the wrestling ring and tagged his foes with his boots as he hopped around. His quickness and unorthodox approach looked a lot like Tiger Mask's. Van Dam, though, has his own weapons to add to the mix.
He soared across the ring, landing on both foe and steel with the Van Terminator. Using a chair to aid his kicking power, he brought the Van Daminator to wrestling's collection of moves as well. Beyond that, he added a flourish to the moonsault, first hitting the splits in the air before bouncing off the ropes.
Elsewhere at the Philadelphia-based promotion, 2 Cold Scorpio was showing off the 450 Splash. New Jack dove from balconies.
When ECW closed its doors in 2003, the indy circuit became the hub of aerial innovation.
With athleticism in abundance and a need to impress fans who have seen it all, indy stars began to look for ways to tweak existing high-flying moves. They added rotations, increased difficulty and pushed back against the laws of physics.
ACH springboards off the second rope before diving outside of the ring. AR Fox calls his springboard moonsault slam Lo Mein Pain: He climbs to the top of the ring post like a cat before launching himself for a moonsault and adds a diving element to the cutter.
Ricochet, now known as Prince Puma at Lucha Underground, is among the indy stars most stretching the limits of the human body. The human falcon began his career in 2003 but really began to be noticed in the late '00s.
The Wrestling Observer Newsletter named him Best Flying Wrestler of 2011, and watching clips of the Illinois native at work, it's easy to see why.
He adds a rotation to the standard moonsault, delivers a 630-degree version of the senton and corkscrews himself in the air as he moonsault over the top rope. Moves like that make him seem like someone who belongs in the X-Men.
He's not alone. The indys, Japan and NXT have their fair share of men taking what Sonnenberg, Coleman and Rocco started to new, thrilling places. New Japan Pro Wrestling's Kota Ibushi and Dragon Gate's Dragon Kid spend a good chunk of their wrestling life off the ground.
WWE's developmental system now boasts some of the most exciting and innovative wrestlers as well: Sami Zayn, Kalisto and Adrian Neville.
If fans who first watched Sonnenberg shift the wrestling game off the canvas could watch Neville perform his Red Arrow finisher, their heads would most certainly explode.
High-flying has advanced tremendously since wrestling's early days. Athletes with visions of creating new feats are to thank for that.
As wrestling's timeline marches on, one has to wonder what lies ahead, what flights future mat workers will take.