Top 10 Mainstream Wrestlers
– Chris O’Mealy 7/28/17 – 9:52PM
For my tenth wrestling related article here at Veracity, I will do my first top ten list. I would like to ideally do these for every tenth article, but since outside interference can always come into play, I will keep the emphasis on “try.”
Very few professional wrestlers admittedly become true household names and cross into mainstream media. It’s a shame too, because so many of these great men and women work so hard and put their bodies on the line to entertain millions of fans. Unfortunately, in the average American home, odds are that the family won’t know offhand names like Bret Hart or Shawn Michaels, unless they are familiar with pro wrestling.
These ten names I’ve come up with have actually managed to breathe that rarefied air. These are names that everybody, even if they aren’t a fan of wrestling, can still recognize. There are more than just ten, so if I leave any off the list you’d like to include in the comments, sound off! I’ll include a few honorable mentions at the bottom that I also considered for this list.
- “GORGEOUS” GEORGE WAGNER
George Wagner will forever be known as the man who helped cable television take off. Due to his time in the limelight being before wrestling truly became a global juggernaut, I will put George in the number ten position. But this is a name that must be recognized. While he wasn’t the first pro wrestler to have a gimmick, he was the first one to have success because of his gimmick. Gorgeous George walked to the ring to the song “Pomp & Circumstance” and made his entire entrance a show. His valet sprayed down everything with perfume – even his opponent! George would fuss over his hair and fold his robe carefully, drawing irate boos from the audience. George was the first true heel to sell out arenas in wrestling. With cable television becoming popular, wrestling was easy and cost-efficient to film. As a result, Gorgeous George helped make cable TV a household item, and made himself a household name in the process.
- THE UNDERTAKER
Gorgeous George was one of wrestling’s first gimmicks to get over, but if you asked anyone who likes wrestling what the best gimmick of all time was, they’d probably tell you the Undertaker. Debuting at the 1990 Survivor Series, the Undertaker became pro wrestling’s most successful gimmick ever. Undertaker went through many character changes, from an undead zombie powered by a magical urn, to a devil-worshiping dark cult leader, and a motorcycle riding American badass. Success and popularity led to people outside of wrestling knowing who the Undertaker was too, as the gimmick became larger than the business itself. As I write this article, it appears as though the Deadman has hung up his hat and coat once and for all, but you never say never in the wrestling business. Perhaps he will return one day and wrestle again, but with his hips and knees aging faster than his willpower to keep wrestling, I’d like to see him in less of a physical role in the future.
- “ROWDY” RODDY PIPER
Hot Rod was one of my favorites as a kid. I was also fortunate enough to meet him working at a resort he stayed at after wrestling a show in their expo center. I got to personally deliver his Piper’s Pit stools to his room. Roddy was known throughout the wrestling world as one of the all-time greats, but he also enjoyed a fair share of mainstream success thanks to his acting career. Sure, some of his films were stinkers, but John Carpenter’s “They Live” will go down as one of the greatest cult classic films of all time, and Roddy was there to chew bubblegum and kick ass. The name Rowdy Roddy is known by most everyone, even if they haven’t seen a wrestling match before. Piper’s antics were as famous as his personality. We miss you, Hot Rod!
- “MACHO MAN” RANDY SAVAGE
Ooooooooo yeah! One of pro wrestling biggest stars in the 1980’s rock ‘n wrestling boom period was the Macho Man himself, Randy Savage. He gained notoriety by being the spokesman for Slim Jim like the Ultimate Warrior had, but became better known outside of wrestling through his biggest characteristic: his voice. There isn’t a sole alive who watches wrestling who hasn’t at least attempted their own impression of the Macho Man.
Randy Savage lent his voice to tons of cartoon performances, and even battled Peter Parker in a steel cage as the notorious Bonesaw. Like Roddy Piper, Savage’s personality became larger than like and transcended the world of wrestling into mainstream pop culture. A legendary voice and a legendary performer, gone too soon.
- JOHN CENA
Whether you love him or hate him, there is no denying that John Cena has become a pop culture icon, and is one of the few wrestlers who debuted after the Attitude Era to do so. Once the Monday Night Wars ceased to be, wrestling took a major ratings dive, and a good chunk of fans watching during the late 90’s were no longer tuning into Monday Night Raw. In 2005, John Cena rose to the top of the wrestling world, and remained on top to this very day. He became extremely popular with the younger fan base, so the new generation of kids who were watching for the first time latched onto him much like my generation did with Hulk Hogan in the 80’s. Cena branched out into movies, hosting award shows, and even meme culture. He’s the most modern example of the mainstream success in pro wrestling, even if you can’t see him.
- ANDRE THE GIANT
Terrifying when he was the bad guy, but beloved when he was the fan-favorite, Andre the Giant was larger than life – literally! Billed at 7’4″ and weighing over 500 pounds, Andre was one of the biggest attractions in pro wrestling history. He was undefeated for an astounding fifteen years, and took part in one of the biggest matches and moments in all of wrestling history, when he was body slammed by the immortal Hulk Hogan. Everyone on the planet knew the name Andre the Giant, and while he passed away back in 1993, his name is still known the world over in 2017. Andre enjoyed a lot of success outside of the ring, whether it was capturing our hearts as Fezzik in “The Princess Bride” or destroying his invincible liver by consuming record-shattering amounts of beer and wine, Andre earned his nickname as the Eighth Wonder of the World. The name Andre the Giant isn’t going away anytime in the near future, which means Andre has achieved true immortality with his legacy.
- JESSE “THE BODY” VENTURA
Many professional wrestlers have broken into the mainstream through music, movies, or other outside ventures. While the former color commentator has a respectable credit profile on IMDB, his jump to being a mainstream icon happened in a pretty unique way. Jesse Ventura became the governor of the state of Minnesota, the first pro wrestler to achieve a high level of political office in history. Whether he was a good governor or a bad governor is up to the opinions of the fine citizens of the North Star State (or Gopher State if you prefer), but there’s no denying that everyone in the country knew the story of the professional wrestler who became the leader of an entire state! Jesse has also expressed interest in gunning for the White House in the past. He may still take that path in the future too. Until then, he’s become a successful author specializing in conspiracy theories. While I don’t always agree with conspiracy theorists, there’s no doubt that they’re interesting to read about, and Ventura certainly takes no prisoners with his points of view.
- “STONE COLD” STEVE AUSTIN
If you think that Stone Cold is the highest grossing wrestler in the history of the company, give me a hell yeah! Everyone should have responded, because Steve Austin’s feud with WWF owner Vince McMahon skyrocketed the WWF into a billion dollar company and made pro wrestling the cool thing to watch. Steve Austin was the name every single person knew in the 1990’s, but his is a name everyone on the planet knows, period. Austin’s success in wrestling made him so famous that even though his resume is quite full these days, people still associate Austin with wrestling first and foremost. As successful as the names on this list are, some people may not have wrestling as their number one affiliation. Austin does, and always will. Everyone knows his iconic look too, and his iconic catchphrases. Even modern fans know Austin 3:16 and that obnoxious what chant, but people outside wrestling know it too. It’s not that common that everything about a wrestler translates to the mainstream, but in Stone Cold’s case, it’s the truth. So crack open a cold Steveweiser on the Broken Skull ranch to the mainstream success of Steve Austin, ’cause that’s the bottom line.
- DWAYNE “THE ROCK” JOHNSON
Now the highest paid actor in Hollywood, not to mention the most sought after action movie star currently, The Rock has gone from world champion to world icon. In this case, it’s arguable that Dwayne Johnson’s wrestling career is just as successful as his acting career. Some may even put his acting in first place, and it’s hard to argue against that point. After all, The Rock has starred in tons of successful movies, including the Fast & the Furious franchise, the GI Joe movies, Disney’s masterpiece Moana, and Doom…okay maybe not so much Doom. Still, The Rock is immensely successful in and out of the wrestling ring. Thankfully he was a third generation superstar who the powers that be wanted to see make it, otherwise those “Die Rocky Die” chants at the smiling blue chipper could have been career-ending. The Rock’s success in the squared circle led to his success on the silver screen, and there isn’t a sole on the planet who doesn’t know who the Rock is. Except for maybe those indigenous cultures I suppose.
- HULK HOGAN
He’s the one and only, the Immortal, Hulk Hogan! Hulk Hogan is now, and perhaps always will be, the single biggest name in the history of the sport of professional wrestling. No matter who you are, you know who Hulk Hogan is, and who he was. Professional wresting’s first big boom period happened because he dethroned the Iron Sheik for the WWF Championship and launched Hulkamania. He became an icon on television, with his larger than life persona and slew of catchphrases. He helped turn wrestling into something popular to enjoy, and helped launch the success of the WWF and the franchise that would become WrestleMania. The cool thing about Hogan is that he completely re-invented himself in 1996 in WCW, when he went Hollywood and ditched the red and yellow for black and white. Hogan has an IMDB profile as well, although I don’t think his movies were quite as popular as The Rock’s. He’s also known for Hogan Knows Best and his lawsuit with Gawker, but those aren’t really things to be proud of. Still, Hulk Hogan is the biggest thing ever in professional wrestling and holds a title that will most likely never be taken away from him. Hulkamania will live forever, brother.
A few honorable mentions:
Sgt. Slaughter, thanks to the GI Joe toy line.
Ultimate Warrior, for Slim Jim and his zany promos.
Ric Flair, the superstar of the NWA.
Dusty Rhodes, the other superstar of the NWA, daddy.
Sting, for being an icon in and out of the sport.
Bruno Sammartino, for being a hero to Italians everywhere (11 years as champion!)
Chris Jericho, for acting, Dancing with the Stars, and of course, Fozzy.
Brock Lesnar, for his success in amateur wrestling and UFC.
Kurt Angle, for being a gold medalist at the 1996 Olympics.
Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka, for being the most popular mainstream wrestler before Hogan.
Owen Hart, sadly because of his tragic death.
Chris Benoit, sadly because of the murder-suicide scandal.
CM Punk, for UFC and making wrestling cool again in the 2010’s.
Mick Foley, for being a New York Times best-selling author.
Diamond Dallas Page, a guru thanks to the insanely successful DDP Yoga program.
Chyna, the most successful mainstream female wrestler in history.
Dave Batista, for his recent role as Drax the Destroyer.
Daniel Bryan, for the YES chant crossing into pop culture.
Vince McMahon himself, the most successful wrestling promoter of all time.
Question and Answer
You got questions, hopefully I got answers!
Q: What was your least favorite time in wrestling? One where every show was a strain to finish. (Allan via Facebook)
A: Definitely right after the first brand split, where the writing got super thin, and Triple H ruled the world. Until the Smackdown Six came to be, Smackdown wasn’t worth anything. I also really struggled to get through the first collection of split brand PPVs, because they would constantly let me down for forty bucks. Thankfully, WWE’s current brand split is much better executed than the one they did in 2003/4. Also current Impact Wrestling is a strain to watch too. Someone call the burn ward.
Q: Do you think titles change hands too much these days? (@Trel67 via Twitter)
A: I wouldn’t say they change too much, because a title changing hands frequently can still work given the storyline behind it, but I’m not a fan of frequent title changes overall. Hotshotting belts can actually kill a promotion. WCW tried this in 2000, and it failed them big time, because the belts became worthless as a result. As long as the matches are well executed and the story is strong, hot potato with a title isn’t always a bad thing. In the case of AJ Styles and Kevin Owens, the finish at the PPV was changed last minute, and the addition of Jericho to the Triple Threat heated the rivalry instead of hurting it. But I wouldn’t recommend doing it all the time.
Q: Why does WWE insist on signing talent only to use them as job guys almost immediately after? I know a lot of the reason is to sign them just to spite other companies, but still stupid. (@ThisIsChev via Twitter)
A: I suppose it depends on who we’re talking about here. Some new talents rise very quickly, like AJ Styles. Some do it naturally, like Shinsuke Nakamura. Some do it slowly, like Sami Zayn. And others really don’t do it at all, like Sami Callihan. I think a lot of it depends on how WWE wants to showcase the talent, and whether or not Vince and certain bucky beaver toothed production guys are behind someone. A good portion of it is on attitude too. Look at how a guy like Austin Aries was supposedly a complainer, and see where he ended up. But I don’t think they sign people simply to keep them out of companies anymore. I think they do well with the talent they have, and I think they focus on guys growing more organically than ever before. Sure, Mike Kanellis just debuted, he’s only 1-2 right now. Let’s see what happens in the future before we judge too harshly.
Q: How could they improve upon the Punjabi Prison match if they ever want to use it in the future? (Renae via Facebook)
A: In my opinion, the match is trash and needs to be retired for good. This past Sunday was proof of that. It’s impossible to see the action going on, and the rules are overly complicated for such a “barbaric structure.” Just let two guys fight in a dangerous environment without a ton of padded rules to sell your story. But if WWE really wanted this match to return, I’d say make it easier to see what’s happening, and ditch the dumb door stipulation. Escaping two cages is enough to tell your story.
Q: Who is the greatest wrestling champion of all time?
A: Bruno Sammartino. He held the title for eleven years. He also regularly defended it. A streak means more when you’re a fighting champion. It also meant that his loss to Ivan Koloff meant even more at Madison Square Garden. It was said you could hear a pin drop when it happened. To me, the best champions raise the value of their championship title belts. Bruno is a good example of quality surpassing quantity. Ric Flair has 16 world titles, which means he also lost it 16 times. Bruno has two, and combined they lasted eleven years.
Chris O’Mealy is a former indy wrestling promoter, ring announcer, manager and referee. Clearly, he is a big pro wrestling fan. He is the founder and moderator of the Club Kayfabe Creative Community, which you can like on Facebook and follow on Twitter. He hosts three podcasts (Club Kayfabe WrestleTalk, Talkin’ Talkies, and The Jersey Rain Hour) which can all be found on Facebook and Podomatic. He also writes for his own blog which you can read at http://comealy17.wordpress.com. He can be reached on Twitter @chrisomealy or emailed directly at email@example.com. You may also contact him on Facebook (facebook.com/chrisomealy), but he will only accept a friend request if you introduce yourself to him first.